Sharjah: Burkino Faso is today the fourth largest producer of gold in Africa. Just a couple of decades ago, it ranked as one of the world’s poorest countries. While many may hail this leap forward as a positive sign of development, for the children of the country, this transformation has come at a great cost.
With his photography series titled ‘Childhood Lost’ currently on exhibition at the International Photography Festival, Xposure 2019, at the Expo Centre in Sharjah, Spanish documentary photographer Antonio Aragon Renuncio highlights, in vivid imagery, the plight of children in Burkino Faso who are forced to work several hundred metres underground in the country’s famed artisanal mines in near-death conditions, “all for a handful of gold dust with which to feed the family.”
Years of drought and famine, and the need to stave off hunger, has seen families send children, “Many as young as seven and eight years old to work practically without rest throughout the year,” says the photographer who has been working in the African region for more than 25 years.
A highly secure area, it took him more than 18 months to get permission to enter the several small-scale mining operations around the country. Over the course of three years, on several trips to mining sites that dot the countryside, Antonio Renuncio produced a series of images that are at once moving and heart wrenching.
“What I saw there was unbelievable; straight out of a crazy and improbable movie,” says the photographer. “The mines are located in the middle of nowhere; set amidst inhospitable plains full of rocks. The kids get no sleep, there’s no one to monitor them, and all around me I saw the battered bodies of men, women and children who had toiled for more than eight hours inside an abyss without eating or drinking or getting even a whiff of fresh air. They dig deeper and deeper, hitting the wall of the hole in the hope of that elusive glow of a piece of stone.”
Safety and comfort seem like a million miles away in each of the photographs exhibited at Xposure. In one image, a young child sleeps next to the entrance of the hole in which he works to prevent another person entering it. A young boy steps out of another one covered in the thick red dust from deep inside the earth.
Another picture depicts the prized and precious gold coloured metal in the form of tiny particles scooped up in a labourer’s palms minutes before being sold off to an intermediary.
“My goal has been to show the pain and struggle children endure, not just in Africa but in countries around the world, to awaken the adults into some form of positive action,” says the photographer who presides over a charitable organisation involved in medical projects in the Gulf of Guinea in Africa.
Photography festival Xposure is open from 11am to 10pm until Sunday, September 22.