Trained as an architect, Chilean photographer Marcos Zegers’ work is rooted in the documentary with a focus on geopolitical and territorial conflicts. Zegers studies of topography are a setting to a medium of expression and a thematic concern about how landscape is configured by the human activity within. Since his first project (2011-2013) that investigated how territorial settlements shaped remote regions in northern and southern Chile, these “cultural landscapes” stand at the forefront of Zegers’ visual investigations.
Desert Infrastructures (2016-2019), is a narrative about an endless journey through the desert and the Andes Highlands in Bolivia and Chile. A suspended and contemplative journey through a topography filled with memory. What at first sight we may perceive as photographs of random elements dispersed throughout the vast landscape is in fact misleading. Zegers leads us through a trail, and each of his carefully selected image, when consciously grouped with the others, becomes part of a linear historical chronicle of the extractive era. Like a map that is revealed in parts, the story reveals the fraught relationship between the mining activities and the resulting cultural displacements that stems from a dispute around a sought-after vital resource: water.
Following the history of the extractive industry in colonial Latin America - rubber in Iquitos, cane in the Caribbean, gold in Guanajuato or silver in Potosi – in Chile it was the raw nitrate ore, Saltpeter, -Saltpeter is the popular name for the chemicals potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate -. Saltpeter deposits were concentrated in the Atacama Desert, then located in Peru’s Tarapacá region and the Bolivian coastal region of Antofagasta. The desert’s extremely arid climate provided ideal conditions for the formation of natural nitrate deposits. For almost two centuries, the Atacama Desert has been a constant source of mineral resource extraction. The “Saltpetre Offices” have left the mark of an era of wealth and exploitation. Today, the situation repeats itself in an identical cycle: what was nitrate, passed to copper, and today, it is lithium.
At the heart of this extractive history are the women and the men who inhabit the land. On the one hand, there is the Aymara woman who walks and graz-es her cattle in the Andean mountain range. She has not seen the face of the mining company. However, they meet in their critical use of a shared resource: water.
The excessive water consumption by mining companies has dried the soil, making livestock and agriculture unviable. Consequently, the highlands man has been forced to descent to the plains and look for work in the city where the job he is most likely to find is in mining. This uncovers a vicious circle which is magnified further by the government’s lack of resolve to the grave problems these isolated areas and its people contend with.
The consequences are severe. The Atacama desert has not been completely exploited and is still rich in many minerals. Equally, the extracting activities have a noticeable impact on climate change but this alarming fact is not addressed politically and environmentally. In Chile, water is sold and the water rights belong to private companies. This situation has alienated the inhabitants of the region and activists are fiercely fighting their rights in the courts.
Desert Infrastructures, far from addressing the issue in all its complexities, seeks to contribute to the latent conversation about the practices of the extracting industry and the current economic model in Chile. To bring back this apparently scenic desert to an urgent reality, promoting a reflection that contributes to the appreciation of rural territory and its culture.