Tamara Merino: Underland

Tamara Merino (Chile): Underland
Inge Morath Award Finalist, 2016


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It is a hot day in the desolated Simpson Desert, Australia. A man walks through the tunnels of his underground house with a torch in his hand. He lives twenty-five meters under the red soil, where he has been finding opal. It was an old mine that he transformed into a roof over his head: a home that promise to have plenty of opal in the walls. “I got my own bank if I want to get a shovel out,” says Martin, an English miner.

Coober Pedy, which derives from the aboriginal name Kupa-Piti or, white man hole, is a small town in the southern Australian outback over 500 miles from the nearest city. Coober Pedy inhabits a subterranean culture, in which the majority of the population goes after the great wealth of opal. This is an unconventional town where most of social and personal life takes place under the vast and lonely land itself.

Coober Pedy is the largest opal mining area in the world and since 1915 has been mined for its opal, a valuable gemstone worth millions. Cobber Pedy breaks all of the social structures and rules of a conventional town, and for a moment, it deceives you; at first glance this is nothing but a ghost town. In reality, it is a subterranean culture that is as mysteriously dark as it is bright and beautiful.
Among a population of 1695 habitants, Coober Pedy offers a home to forty-five different nationalities of immigrants, ex-prisoners, and veterans of the World War who have decided to escape their past lives and take refuge in underground houses called dugouts.

Each year, mining work has been decreasing on all fronts. There are less miners working on the fields and young people don’t want to commit to it because of the eminent danger and its unstable source of income. It is a crazy and unusual life; they could be millionaire any day or they could not find anything for years. This gem reveals the hidden motivations of those that follow its illusion of wealth, and an atmosphere of distrustful eyes and mystery await those who go after its allure. Opal fever takes place and that’s when the madness, ambition, greed, despair, distrust and obsession begin.