Interview: Mark Craemer on the Bisie mine in Congo

Article Published 26 Jul 2011 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
Photo: © Mark Craemer
Mark Craemer is a professional photographer based in New York City. His recent photography documents the conflict mineral and humanitarian situation in the D.R. Congo.
  • Your images in Signals 2011 are powerful. Can you tell us about it?

The Photographs in Signals 2011 were taken with the help of The Enough Project which is helping to build a permanent constituency to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity. Conflict mineral mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is something they focus on.

The work focuses on a remote cassiterite (tin ore) mine at Bisie in the North Kivu region of the country. Here some 2000 artisanal miners pan and dig for tin ore, while various militia groups and government troops fight for control of the area and the revenue from the mines.

The cassiterite from Bisie is mined then carried on foot through the forest for 16 hours to the nearest road in the town of Ndjingala. Nearby in Kilambo is a section of road that doubles as a landing strip for the planes that deliver the cassiterite to the regional capital of Goma. From Goma the cassiterite is either refined or transported across the border to Rwanda and onward to ports in Kenya for the trip to Malaysia and Thailand. Eventually these refined conflict minerals end up in the factories of China and into the world’s consumer electronics

  • Tell us about the experience of photographing this part of our world

The photos were taken in a remote corner of the DRC across the border from Rwanda, in an area that is the epicentre of the long running war in that part of the world. The mine I visited, called Bisie, lies deep in the forest some 40km from the nearest road. Getting to the mine was quite a challenge. Myself and my writer friend were fortunate enough to get a lift out on an old helicopter owned by a South African mining company.

We spent six nights out there sleeping in a tent, a couple of hundred metres from the mining area. In the vicinity were some 2000 artisanal miners panning and digging for tin ore, while various militia groups engage in low-level fighting for control of the area and the revenue from the ore.

  • How difficult was it to work in those conditions?

Yes. In terms of photography, the issues included minimal access to electricity with use of a single overloaded generator for a few hours per evenings to charge batteries and hard drives.

Shooting the miners at work underground involved venturing down into their network of tiny hand dug tunnels. As you can see in the photos, mine entrances are typically just small holes in the ground which lead off deep into the earth.

These tunnels are propped up with pieces of wood, and are often not much bigger than your body. Some you literally have to squeeze yourself through. As well as being claustrophobic it was also very hot, humid, and smelling of urine. All oxygen in these deep tunnels had to come through the single small openings at ground level, so deep into the tunnels there was low levels of oxygen.

I was covered in mud and sweat, the whole place was dripping with condensation, and my lenses would be completely fogged up most of the time. Often I would be shooting, braced between two vertical walls with deeper tunnels leading off beneath me. As only a handful of foreigners had ever been to this place, we were something of a spectacle to the miners. When entering a tunnel we would be followed in by a gang of other rowdy and curious miners adding to the chaos, claustrophobia and lack of oxygen.

The size of the tunnels meant that turning your body around to exit was only possible in certain locations, with a horde of miners in pursuit meant it was basically impossible. Needless to say it was a little stressful. I found that focussing on the photography, dealing with my lens issues, and trying to not fall down a hole, helped me not think too much on how confined and dangerous the situation was.

These conditions were bad, but there were other mines that we were simply to scared (or sensible) to enter. Mines with smoke emanating from their tiny entrances, ones with very long confined tunnels where you had to crawl with the lower part of your body submerged in puddles of mud.


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