Copper Belt Project

As often as we’re able, in between working our full-time jobs and taking care of our families, we leave our home in Tucson, Arizona and all the pressures of everyday life for a trip into another world – the environmentally and economically depressed places of Arizona’s Copper Belt. Together we have have come to know and appreciate the people who still eke out an existence there, the shops, restaurants and motels that manage to survive in an extremely harsh business climate.

But the primary focus of our adventures are the abandoned buildings and vehicles that litter the landscapes. A legacy from when the Copper Belt was booming, these modern ruins testify to how quickly the order we impose on the world can break down. Kim calls the sites we visit the “wreckage”, which is the perfect name for them on so many levels. The wreckage of homes and jobs lost. The wreckage left in the wake of the giant beast of global capitalism. The wreckage of this so-called democracy.

For most of the twentieth century, Arizona’s economy depended heavily on mining. In Arizona’s southeastern mountains, boom and bust cycles turned on the price of what could be extracted from the ground, especially copper. But until the price of that crucial mineral started rising recently, the towns along the Copper Belt were becoming graveyards for a way of life.

The irony is that, even while the copper mining towns were being gutted and union jobs outsourced to other countries, copper was becoming more and more important for the mass communication grid that allows global capitalism to function as a giant living body. Without copper, there wouldn’t be a need to outsource so much. Copper is what connects the body of global capitalism together, what keeps it going, the material from which its veins and arteries are made.

Now that the cost of copper and demand for it have risen, some of the miners are back, though nowhere near as many as used to work the pits. Technology and competition from abroad have seen to that. Driving through Copper Belt towns like Clifton and Globe and Safford, it’s impossible not to notice how many businesses have failed and how many houses have been abandoned. The workers who are lucky enough to have jobs tend to be transients in the landscape, staying in motels during the week before heading back to their families in places where it can still feel like home.

Maybe that’s why we find the Copper Belt strangely liberating. In this place where the landscape was already ravaged by massive environmental pollution and despair, long before the current economic crisis, life goes on in spite of the odds. The people we meet out there on our trips are survivors, able to salvage hope under the most depressing conditions. They inspire us to do the same.

We call what we’re doing there, the places we photograph and the people we write about, the Copper Belt Project. We will eventually present our work together in a collaborative art installation and then a book. For now, though, we’re delighted to share this work in progress as an experiment in personal and political geography, a way of excavating a reality that would otherwise lie buried in the wreckage.

There are so many forgotten places in this world, so many ruins that testify to human folly. Our hope is that in devoting time and energy to exploring one region that is full of them, we will inspire others to seek out sites nearby, to learn to appreciate beaten-down landscapes and the people who inhabit them in a new way.

It’s hard to take the measure of a place you visit over and over. Each trip adds new layers of meaning, slight nuances of change. Even when things don’t change at all, the light that hits them and the way we see them do. Sometimes the way we see things on a repeat visit conflicts with our earlier vision or understanding of a place. And sometimes the two of us just see things differently. It makes it difficult to tell a fixed story. But that’s also what makes this project so rewarding: we learn something new each time.

The stories we want to tell are the kind that won’t let a place be. Even in the wrecked landscape of the Copper Belt, things are constantly in flux and have the potential to transcend being locked in time and become something else. The mountains and desert may seem like the graveyard for a way of life, but the coffins have a way of turning up empty.

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