The copper geographies of Chile and Britain: A photographic study of mining

  • Ignacio Acosta

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This practice-based thesis is a study of the uneven geographical development of Chilean copper mining industry and the circulation of copper in Britain. My research examines three key historical moments in a pattern of ‘denationalisation,’ a term identified by Sassen (2003), of the copper resources of Chile: (1) 1840–1880; (2) 1904–1969; and (3) 1981–today, in which resources have been transferred from public to private management. In my research, I use a combination of photographic and historical methodologies to explore the impact of those processes on the extractive ecologies of Chile and to connect them to the global geographies of London, Liverpool and Swansea. My thesis considers how photography can be used to propose a re-mapping of the relationship between the global and the local, the national and the transnational, making visible the hidden geopolitical forces that shape the mobile and unequal geographies of copper. My doctoral investigation explores the global circulation of copper and its agency to produce geographical and political change. With the aim of revealing their close connections and networks, it examines the notion of ‘unequal geography’ established by Baran (1957) and the newer ‘mobility paradigm’ proposed by Sheller and Urry (2006). I follow the flow of copper, in Held’s words, ‘across space and time’ (1999), creating a constellation of photographs and texts about the transformation and mutation of copper as it traverses the world, exploring traces of extraction, smelting, manufacture, transport and trade processes across geographies. In doing so, I open ways of thinking about how landscape carries traces of those processes, bringing to the fore the significance of photographic intervention in highlighting them. The photographic research conducted during this investigation is organised in three lines of inquiry: Global mobility of copper; Post-industrial landscapes; and Contemporary mining industry and its relation to London. The first, Global mobility of copper comprises four visual essays presented together this written thesis: Sulphiric Acid Route (2012), Metallic Threads (2010-2015), High Rise (2012) and Hidden Circuits (2015). These works explore the mutation and transformation of hard-rock mining, back and forth from Chile to Britain from raw material to capital; through ore, smelted commodity, stock market exchanged value, assembled material and waste. The second, Post industrial landscapes, is explored through two case studies. The first of these is Coquimbo & Swansea (2014), which studies forgotten historical mining connections between Coquimbo, Chile and the Lower Swansea Valley, Wales between 1840 and 1880. This is followed by Miss Chuquicamata, the Slag (2012), which examines the Chuquicamata corporate town, Antofagasta Region, Chile and its contested history. The third line of inquiry, Contemporary mining industry and its relation to London involves two case studies. It opens with Antofagasta plc, Stop Abuses! (2010–14), which connects contemporary struggles of the inhabitants of Pupio Valley with the City of London, the world’s centre for mining investment. This line of investigation concludes with the site-specific studies LME Invisible Corporate Network (2011–15), which examines the London Metal Exchange within the City of London, using mapping methodologies. These case studies can also be used to map the three periods of denationalisation of copper resources in Chile. My photographic work is based on extensive photographic fieldwork in each geographical location, conducted over the last four years, as well as my two years as an activist photographer. Through my written thesis I seek to make visible the historical conditions that are central to the formation of the geographies of copper. Both aspects of my work are informed by the notion of ‘critical realism’ coined by Georg Lukács (1963) and developed later by Allan Sekula (1984). Alongside these case studies, my written thesis contains photographic examples of my practice so as to give insight into my research process. This thesis has been produced as part of Traces of Nitrate: Mining history and photography between Britain and Chile, a research proyect developed in collabotation with Art and Design historian Louise Purbrick and photographer Xavier Ribas, based at the University of Brighton and funded by with the generous support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Date of AwardDec 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton

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