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Laurence Butet-Roch

The Last Mine

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It is still nighttime. The sun has yet to rise and the sky is a dreary dark grey that forecasts a cloudy day. Gilles, 55, is getting ready for another day at work. He lives amidst an unorthodox landscape. The path to his home zigzags through mining properties and large looming, lifeless tailings, which he has grown fond of. Gilles was born here and, like his father and grandfather before him, he started working in the asbestos mine as soon as he was allowed, at the age of 22. Thirty three years later, he still works there.

Over breakfast, he shares his worries. The asbestos industry continues to face a growing number of critics, especially in Canada. In the 1970s, medical reports highlighted the devastating impacts that continued exposure to asbestos can have on health. Since then, over 40 states have banned asbestos. This measure has caused most of the mines to be decommissioned. Nowadays, the Black Lake Operation, located in Thetford Mines about two hours from Montreal, is the last asbestos mine in the country. The region once boasted ten mines that employed over 3,500 men.

Today, most of the controversy arises from the sale of asbestos to developing countries where health regulations are either non-existent or lack proper implementation. Repeatedly those working in the asbestos industry have been called no less than “merchants of death”. The miners are aware of the controversy, yet remain proud of the town and industry that feeds it. Their fear of losing what they know and work for shows on their faces and in the way they speak. “If they close this one, what is left” wonders Gaëtan who worked for 32 years in the asbestos industry before retiring two years ago.

These men are not worried about their health. They don’t believe that they are at risk of contracting asbestosis or mesothelioma – two diseases related to asbestos dust inhalation – because of the precautionary measures put in place by the industry. Yet what they are gripped by is the precarious nature of their current situation, by the constant possibility of losing their job, their livelihood.

By focusing on the workers’ viewpoint, I sought to highlight a human aspect to which it is difficult to remain indifferent and that is often overlooked within this ongoing national and international debate. These photographs demonstrate the pervasive impacts of the asbestos industry on a Canadian town, its scenery and the life of its residents. This project is also part of a much larger and complex debate that is fundamental to Canada’s future economy and international role: how can we support Canadian workers while maintaining an ethical commercial policy?


Laurence Butet-Roch (born 1985) is a Canadian freelance photographer. She completed a B.A. in International Relations from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver before attending the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa. She is currently exploring the impacts of Canada’s natural resource industries on the lives of Canadians. The first part of this study, “The Last Mine” has been exhibited in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. In 2010 Laurence won the 1st prize at the Montreal Mois de la Photo Young Photographer Contest. She is represented by La Petite Mort Gallery in Ottawa.

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Laurence Butet-Roch


18 thoughts on “laurence butet-roch – the last mine”

  1. I like your pictures, especially the portraits. #7 ist great.
    from the landscapes, #4 blew me away. the dimensions are awesome.
    the last picture, wow. very good choice – it is symbolic for the material and the industry.

  2. I agree with Thomas, those are some strong images.
    I feel like the story has more strength than the images provide.
    The landscape is bleak as are the miners’ futures… It’s a compelling essay, I’d love to see more – perhaps more from the mines that have been shut down across the country. a deeper look into the working lives of these people, what are the precautions mentioned? I think getting closer, as in more involved, to the topic and the people would help you create more images that help bolster the prose story.
    When the mine expands and the homes are moved, how does this effect lives and families?
    I like what you’ve started with. More please

  3. Some of the portraits are wonderful but most of the landscapes look terrible to me. I imagine there is some kind of look you are going for but it looks quite shoddy to my eyes. Anyway it’s an interesting story. I’m always amazed how people can ignore the terrible things they do because it’s what they have always done.

  4. Laurence,

    Good essay, important topic. Love your portraits. Some of the landscapes. Overall, I think it well put together. And yes, like Thomas, that last image really works. It may at first seem cliche or obvious, but in reality, it works. Well done.

    Congrats on being published here.

  5. Isn’t that last image the end of all stories?

    The first time I looked at this, I thought, very nice portraits, but did not really feel that on the whole it told the story you wanted it to.

    However, I just now returned to it and looked at it in reverse, and suddenly, it all jumped out at me. I could feel it and I could feel the story and strong but austere portraits perfectly matched the austere landscapes.

    And I sit here coughing. Probably just because there is a bad cold and even a flu going around and maybe I’ve got it, but when I was early junior high age, my friends and I would play in old buildings and these included old Fort Missoula, where Japanese prisoners had been housed during WW II.

    Our play was very destructive. We would smash holes in walls and ceilings and crush the insulation. Not long afterward, in California, I came down with terrible bronchitis and never did seem to get totally over it. Whenever the bad cough returns and lingers long after one would think it would heal, I think about that fort and wonder if any of that insulation we crushed and breathed was asbestos.

  6. Laurence,

    The landscapes you’ve created with the tailings mountains are quite unique and deserve an essay or art series all on their own. I’ve never seen such photographs; they are perfect representations of Edward Burtynsky’s “manufactured landscapes”, but leave his intentions well behind. They serve as metaphors for the socio-economic changes time and the mines have done to the town.

    If you intend on continuing the series elsewhere, the tailings mounds of Thetford, the slag heaps in Sudbury, and the holding ponds at the Saskatchewan potash mines could make interesting large-scale artificial landscapes all made by human hands and endeavours.

    Good luck!

  7. I love this essay, the story is relevant, thecnically is good and graphics (composition, colors, and textures) are personal, peculiar and memory-persistent.

    Greetings from Spain.


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  9. Laurence…
    Very interesting essay… Actually my great grandfather established the first or at least one of the first asbestos factories in England they made the type of roof insulation probably Frostfrog inhaled as a kid. But that family business went a long, long time ago.
    Lovely images I just love the soft look of the portraits and I find the landscapes really quite refreshing from the usual extra saturation seen so much in digital.

  10. I like this series for the most part. On first viewing I was a little disconcerted by the contrast between the portraits and the landscapes, but once accustomed to it on further, slower viewings did not mind. My favorite image is #11. Least favorite is #17 due to the technical difficulties. In a shoptalk kinda way, I like how #12 shows the good reasons for keeping detail in the shadows. And the way the captions are handled is exemplary (though there are a few spelling and grammatical errors you may want to fix).

  11. Laurence :)

    First of all, congratulations on being published in BURN! :)…

    I absolutely commend you on not only the project (a very important one here in Canada) but also on the opportunity and realization to skate out beyond the extraordinary shadow of Ed’s work. It is virtually impossible for me to look at a photographic project that deals with the land, the environmental devastation and the consequences of our work and ‘caretaking’ of the earth without thinking of his important and visionary work. Manufactured Landscapes is one of the iconic books of this century that it is very difficult to think of the carving out of the land without thinking of his work. Of course, images #2 and especially #4 call to mind Burtynsky’s latest book “Quarries” of which 4 seems to be a particular and inescapable homage…..

    and yet…:)))

    you’ve begun both a story and a visual narrative that is very different from both the tone and aesthetic of Ed’s work and actually works something very interesting: that his the (forgive my art speak for a moment) anthropomorphic effect of the land upon US. The pictures that I find not only the most visually exciting but also that stayed with me the longest were those gorgeous and strange images in which the land, the mountains, the hills, the swelling from the mines and quarries appear to be giants, huge earthly leviathans scouring, stalking and swallowing the land and the community around. Quebec’s Moby Dick, in the hue of shale….

    i love the power and strange mystery of these images: 8, 11 (jealous of that one), 13, 15, 16 and 20….in a way i feel like Ahab, spawned and haunted by that great beast out there probing the deep, on the deep is cut from the ore in front of our eyes….and for me, that IS the power of this story…..as a narrative, those images work for me along with the portraits, and would have preferred just that…the immensity of the land and the simplicity of the tight, close-up portraits…those 2 components are so contradictory and bound, that the tension (emotionally and visually) is quite palpable….and that is all i want…

    i didn’t like at all the ‘environmental’ portraits, both visually and emotionally, here: i didn’t like 5, 10, and 17 at all…though i understand your reasoning (to show us their humanity, their lives, the environment, to ‘humanize’ them and their lives against the scale of the immensity), they seemed extraneous….because ALL THAT EMOTION can be wrenched from the dichotomy of the environmental pictures and the faces of the men (and women, i hope eventually in your project)…

    i don’t know if you are familiar with Aranxta Cedillo’s work in NOrthern Ontario?…She is a good friend of mine and Marina’s who before she left Toronto for Cambodia, did a story on Women Miners in northern Ontario….she’s know in Cambodia, but if feel free to write her if you want to bounce ideas off her….she’s a close friend and you can tell her I told you to contact her…


    so, looking forward to seeing more of your project……and these land leviathans…

    congrats, enjoyed the story a lot


  12. The subject is treated with a wonderful sobriety, one which is enhanced by lessening contrasts in the landscape images (a stance quite opposite to Koudelka’s industrial wasted scapes or Salgado on Brazilian gold mines), projecting the idea that the place, houses and people are intertwined and as the text leads us to see, exists and takes its raison d’ etre, from a very organic sense of community between elements and men. This is not seem too often these days, where ecological concerns tend to have people victims or separated from what they did (or were paid to do) to the environment around them.

    I suppose this is why I personally prefer the portraits seen within context (at home, in front of the mine gates)more interesting than the ones shot “in bust”. The guys tend to look a bit too much like old sailers, framed and treated the way you did it. There is little way to affix them to the rest of the subject, other than acknowledging they do belong to the community. Of course.

    An essay that only a dedication to let us know about this place and industry could bring to us, it is therefore unique and a most welcomed and deserved addition on BURN. Thank you.

    PS: dangerous industries. I can’t help thinking of the one that builds and sells arms, so often decried as an industry of death. Yet, if we were to dismantle it, millions of people in the US and Europe (France!) would lose their livelihood. Catch 22.

  13. Thank you all for taking the time to have a look at my photographs and comment on them. This being a work in progress I thrive on viewers input to further my reflections and improve the project. Given the variety of opinions expressed here, I have a lot to think about. Being a Canadian photographer interested in our relation with the environment, it can be difficult to step out of Edward Burtynsky’s shadow. Of course, I appreciate the comparison, but I’m even happier to hear that many of you noticed my intent to connect how communities are impacted by the resource extraction industry, which is what I found lacking in Burtynsky’s work. And, as Herve mentioned, I do not want these workers to be perceived as victims. Yes, the landscapes are grim, the tailings overbearing and the workers’ daily routine exhausting, but to the people of Thetford Mines, this is their heritage and they are fond of it, like one can be of a very dysfunctional family. Attached, yet torn by some of its aspects. As I said in the presentation text, this is part of a much much larger debate regarding our understanding of our relation with the environment and the economic impetus.

    PS. Bob thank you for introducing me to Aranxta Cedillo’s work done in Northern Ontario. It truly surprised me as I found the mining industry in Thetford Mines to be male exclusive.

  14. kateelizabethfowler

    Wow, this essay is an inspiration. Your landscapes are breathtaking; the desaturated colors and amazing scale of these images brings them almost to the point of abstraction. I’m deeply moved by this collection.. congratulations!

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