“Miners don’t like having their picture taken,” said Birger Amundsen, minutes before presenting a room filled with about 30 enormous portraits of the workers’ dirty faces from the past 25 years in Svalbard.
Furthermore, the longtime journalist and author said he’s sad to see the coal miners being replaced “soft people” in tourism, an industry “without a core,” but since the room of his photos is at Svalbard Museum it means most of the people looking at his exhibit will be – wait for it – tourists.
If Amundsen’s attitude seems a bit crusty, perhaps it’s due to a long kinship with the local “Kullfolk,” the title of the exhibit unveiled this week. He began taking the photos in Mine 3 in 1991 and was as much colleague as correspondent, with his own work uniform and come-and-go privileges anytime day or night.
“For me it’s so important that the miners represent the core of Svalbard – it’s not soft,” he said, explaining the paradox of putting photo-shy people on display at a tourist attraction.
Store Norske, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year, brought an end to Longyearbyen’s lifetime history as a mining town on Oct. 1 when it completed the near total shutdown of all operations. The company has jettisoned all but 100 of what was a 400-person workforce in 2012, roughly half of whom are working at the relatively low-production Mine 7 and the rest in evolving areas such as developing the shutdown mines as tourist sites.
Amundsen said the process is similar to what he saw when he was living in Lofoten, where a once-strong fishing industry is being replaced by tourist activities highlighting the area’s past.
“They’re building up more and more artificial things,” he said. “The fake world will take over more and more.”
Amundsen said his exhibit, which will remain on display until Dec. 30, “is not done for tourists.”
“It’s a celebration for the miners,” he said. “This is sort of my handshake to the miners to say thanks after all this time.”
The photos range from his first days inside Mine 3 to the final days at Svea in September. Amundsen said it took three months of full-time work to select the exhibition photos from his enormous collection.
“That was really hard,” he said. “A lot of those people are friends of mine. I tried to see the quality of the picture and not the quality of the person.”
Among the estimated 60 people attending the exhibit opening was Annbjørg Austbø, the first woman to work for Store Norske inside a mine as a cleaner at Mine 3. She is one of the very few workers in the exhibit with a clean face – although her uniform definitely isn’t – a photo from 1996 when she was in his mid-40s shows her holding a soon-to-be-posted sign asking miners to stop peeing in the entrance to the mine.
Austbø said she didn’t mind being photographed, but many of her co-workers did, especially when tourists first entered Mine 3 during the early 1990s. Now that most of the opportunities to see active miners in Svalbard are gone, she said she hopes the exhibit will convey just how “hard” the area’s primary workforce was.
“I like that they will see how the work was – and it was not so long ago – and the work was very hard,” she said.