Phototalk with Sarina Finkelstein
1) What made you decide to start a project about the new wave of prospectors in California?
I have always gravitated toward photographing “undiluted” personalities and the off-the-grid or alternative lifestyles of the passionate, obsessive, eccentric and determined. This was what attracted me to photographing the new wave of prospectors in California.
Before I started the project, I had recently undergone a tragic loss in my own family, and I read a small newspaper article about a group living in the mountains of California, who had either given up everything (selling homes, farms, etc.) to move there to pursue their search for gold, or who had lost their jobs or retirement plans and were doing it as a means of support in the interim.
The idea that people—in a time of desperation or as a lifestyle choice to escape the chaos of modernity—were moving to the wilderness to pursue the self-reliant lifestyle of their predecessors some 150+ years ago was inspiring. On an emotional level, part of me associated with the idea of people being stripped of everything and independently trying to work their way back toward finding something to sustain them.
2) Can you tell us more about this phenomenon and about your work “Prospectors”?
I started photographing the new wave of prospectors in 2009, when the country was in the midst of its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Yet, while banks were imploding, people were losing their jobs and houses were foreclosed upon, the average price of gold between 2005 and 2010 quadrupled. The increase suddenly made prospecting for gold seem to many like an attractive and lucrative venture.
In late 2009, I was reading a great book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford, which discusses the status of the craft or trade industry as it exists today in relation to the emerging information economy. Crawford comments in his book, “it’s a bi-product of the hard economic times…a desire to be frugal. And, this idea of being frugal requires some measure of self-reliance. The ability to take care of your own stuff.” I think that’s what they’re doing. Many have fled a global economy based largely on abstract forces in order to become modern-day “pioneers,” living in tents or campers amidst some of the most picturesque scenery that exists in this country. What they get in return is the simple satisfaction that comes from being able to pull something tangible like a gold flake or nugget from the ground with their own two hands.
I have been photographing communities and individual prospectors around The Golden State over the last few years. In the time I’ve been photographing them, there have been a few changes. The price of gold has continued to rise. There has been quite a bit of environmental legislation passed to limit certain forms of modern mining equipment (suction dredges) used on the waterways. That has had a huge impact on the prospecting population and mining supply store sales, but has also decreased income derived from out-of-state miners who came to California to prospect. It has also driven many California prospectors to leave the state. The ones that remain have reverted to more historic/traditional low-tech forms of prospecting like panning and sluicing.
3) The original prospectors, back in 1849, were basically moved by desperation, looking for gold to survive. Do you think the value of gold has changed for the new prospectors?
Maybe? It depends on which person you ask. The majority of the people I have been photographing are still trying to survive off of the gold they find, and they recycle it back into their lifestyle. Many don’t have a permanent home, no car payments, electric bills, telephone, etc., so finding even a small amount of gold can potentially sustain them.
But, there are some who are doing it more recreationally in their retirement, who use it to make jewelry or art, or just to get outdoors.
4) What does “the gold” stand for ?
The gold itself stands for different things. I already mentioned the ideas of “tangibility” and “self-reliance,” but it’s also an obsession. It gives them hope, inspires them to take a risk, and the search appeals to their adventurous spirit. Many are willing to gamble everything to find it. Sometimes, their faith in their ability to find it borders on being “spiritual.” They connect with nature and the energy of their environment through ancient practices like “dowsing/divining” for gold, or by trying to “read” the river to determine where gold may have been deposited decades or centuries ago.
5) What do you think this continuous search symbolizes ?
Throughout history, there are countless stories about some sort of character on a search for treasure, power or hoping to get rich…Ovid’s King Midas, the search for The Golden Fleece, The Holy Grail, Indiana Jones, The Goonies and even the search for the precious mineral “unobtainium” in 2009’s Avatar.
Throughout all of these—whether they find the treasure, whether they don’t find the treasure, whether it brings them satisfaction or whether it turns their lives to misery—what you’re really reading about are people who are on an archetypal quest for something they hope will bring them some sort of happiness. It’s the same today.
6) I was very touched by the words of prospector Bernie McGrath who said: “All my life I’ve searched for serenity and peace of mind. Tried everything for that. When I found this, gee, here I am alone, not a soul around me…I thought it was as close to Heaven as I’d ever get”. Looking for gold seems more a life choice instead of a choice for living. How was it like to live there with them? What where your impressions and feelings?
Gold prospecting is clearly a life choice, and Bernie explained it perfectly. Where he lives, there is no cell service. There are no computers. He sits every day atop a river canyon with a view of rocky Southern California mountains in the background. It’s peaceful. There is a small group of prospectors who gather around him daily. He is known as the “Unofficial Mayor of Nugget Alley” because he has been there since the 80s and has taught many of the newbies how to prospect.
One of them, Martin, lives in a tent less than a mile upstream. He sold his farm in Missouri (ten miles from my own hometown) to move to California with his friend to prospect for gold. Where his camp is located, on the banks of the river, it catches a cool breeze through the trees, and the only sound is the current over the rocks. The last time I visited, he said to me, “it’s all about the digging, the work, the search. And this…[waving his arms in all directions]… is my front yard—the river, the mountains. You’re on my porch.”
Having experienced just a taste of the life they experience every day, it’s clear why they love it. I always find it difficult to leave.
7) In your works, you seem to combine documentary photography together with an artistic vision, is that true?
Another photographer told me recently that what she enjoys most about my photographs is that she gets a sense of how I specifically see things, how I feel and the details I pay attention to in a place or in a moment. She said that even if the subject matter of my work is not inherently about me, I still make it feel personal and intimate and that is what makes it distinct and unique from other documentary work, which often strives to be more objective.
My working process is slower than most traditional documentary-style photographers. (Some people call this “slow journalism,” I guess.) It is purposeful, considered and—above all—more involved. I spend a lot of time just talking to people—holding my camera but never pressing the shutter—watching their body language, learning what is important to them. I only start photographing when they are comfortable, aware and accepting. The photographs are our exchange, our connection. I don’t generally pose people, but I will ask people to freeze in the moment in which they are. I feel like my best images achieve a sense of quiet strength.
8) What does photography mean for you?
What I love most about photography is that each day is always different from the next, there’s always a new adventure or person to meet. Get a group of photographers together in one room, and there’s no shortage of great stories.
Do you know the phrase, “Sometimes, you do not really fully understand something unless you take a walk in someone else’s shoes?” That’s what I do every day I’m photographing, test-driving what it is like to live as they do, experience what they see or how people see them. Photographing teaches me to always be open to something new, to never be judgmental, to read people and to appreciate details.
Above all, I finally have an excuse for staring.
9) I know your husband is also a fellow photographer. How is it like to share your life with someone who’s in your same work?
We started dating by going out together to photograph while we were in college. Eleven years later, we are one another’s biggest cheerleaders and harshest critics. I respect his opinion. We often edit one another’s work because we each know how the other person thinks and sees, what we want our work to achieve. We are equally driven and we challenge one another to be better photographers. He shares my obsessive love for the medium.
All images © Sarina Finkelstein