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Arts & Culture
Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Larry C. Price: Bringing Child Labor and Global Pollution into the Light

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Larry C. Price
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Gold miner Karim Sawadogo was nine years old when Larry C. Price photographed him in Burkina Faso. A U.N. Labor report says that roughly one million children are “engaged in small scale gold-mining.” ";s:

Dayton-based photojournalist Larry C. Price has won two Pulitzer Prizes and an Emmy, and some of his most powerful work is just being processed now. He’s been traveling the globe, capturing images of child laborers and toxic pollution.

Larry C. Price takes beautiful photos of disturbing situations.

During a slide show in Oakwood, where Price and his wife run a creative firm, he shares photos of child laborers: an adorable boy, who is no more than five, struggles to haul a sixty pound sack of gold ore. Two preteen girls sit together, smashing rocks with hammers. There’s a photo of a seven-year-old working in a deep, dark mine with a flashlight strapped to his head.

This photo was taken after a water pump blew a gasket in a Filipino gold mine. When the pump kicked back on, Price says the miners cheered. Then they went right back to work.
Credit Larry C. Price
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This photo was taken after a water pump blew a gasket in a Filipino gold mine. When the pump kicked back on, Price says the miners cheered. Then they went right back to work.

Price climbed to the bottom of that gold mine in Burkina Faso, Africa.   

“I had no idea who was down there,” Price says. “It was pitch dark, and I got down there, and I was able to shine my head lamp around. There were these two little eyes, just staring at me out of this crevasse, and I had no interpreter, and he’d probably never seen a Westerner in his life.”

Price says one key to taking photos of different cultures is to “speak smile.” He smiled at the boy, whose name is Théophile, and Théophile smiled back. Then, the boy went right back to digging. He would fill a green plastic bucket, then tug on a rope, and someone on the surface would pull the bucket up.

“He had this amazing work ethic,” Price says, “because it’s what he’s expected to do. That was his entire life. He’d never been to school. It’s a tragic case of a child compelled to do things that children just shouldn’t be doing.”

Price notes that the land behind this boy has been stripped by gold mining, and it’s a common sight in Burkina Faso.
Credit Larry C. Price
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Price notes that the land behind this boy has been stripped by gold mining, and it’s a common sight in Burkina Faso.

Children and Pollution   

Child labor and toxic pollution often occur side-by-side, as is the case in small-scale gold mining. Liquid mercury is used because it attracts gold, but workers often use it in rivers that people bath in, fish in, and drink from. Even worse, to get gold out of mercury, workers torch it, sending toxic smoke into air—air that entire communities breathe.

On a trip to Indonesia and the Philippines, Price saw the damage mercury poisoning can do. He photographed dozens of people, including a man whose hands never stop shaking and young girl named Dita, who was fine as a toddler, but lost control of her arms and legs around the age of three. Her body looks twisted now. She lives in a small bamboo hut, in constant pain, cared for by her mother.

“The use of mercury is insidious,” Price says, “and it’s making hundreds of thousands of people sick in Indonesia, the Philippines, all over Asia.”  

And small-scale gold mining is just one issue Price is addressing.
 

Handprints on a factory wall in Dhaka. Price says that workers would pat their hands against the wall to remove blue chromium sulfate while on break.
Credit Larry C. Price
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Handprints on a factory wall in Dhaka. Price says that workers would pat their hands against the wall to remove blue chromium sulfate while on break.

He recently traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where child laborers cure leather in industrial tanneries. They work with chromium compounds, hydrochloric acid, and other dangerous chemicals, usually without masks or proper ventilation.

Price saw child workers standing barefoot, ankle deep in chemical run off, and handling chemicals with their bare hands.
 
“Skin disease is common,” he says. “I saw some workers… layers of skin were just flaking off of their hands and palms. Their hands looked like they had black tar on them, but what it was were layers of discolored skin that were peeling off, revealing the normal texture of the skin underneath. And it was just this constant cycle of peeling skin.”

Jonathan Ramorez was 12 when Price photographed him panning in dirty water all day.
Credit Larry C. Price
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Jonathan Ramorez was 12 when Price photographed him panning in dirty water all day.

Photojournalist & Artist

When Price isn’t in the field, he comes home to Dayton to look through the thousands of photos he’s taken and process those that make the cut. He’s selective, and his work is both photojournalism and fine art. In the fall, he exhibited locally at Wright State University and internationally at the Norwegian Mining Museum.

Ben Montague curated the show at Wright State. He was excited to get a sneak peak of Price’s forthcoming work, and he compares Price to one of the most important photographers of our era.  

“The images were exquisite,” Montague says. “They brought to mind images of Sebastiao Salgado, and I think they evoked those same emotions in a new way.”

A young tannery worker rinses off in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Many workers handle chromium compounds and other dangerous chemicals without proper ventilation, masks, gloves, or even shoes.
Credit Larry C. Price
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Larry C. Price
A young tannery worker rinses off in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Many workers handle chromium compounds and other dangerous chemicals without proper ventilation, masks, gloves, or even shoes.

While Sebastiao Salgado is most famous for black and white photos of manual laborers, Larry Price often works in vivid color. What maybe most surprising about Price’s work is how pretty some of it is.

Tracy Longley-Cook, an associate professor of art at Wright State, says Price’s images are easy to get swept up in.

“These are cultures and lands and locations and human beings that are really extraordinary,” she says. “They’re part of our human race. I know tannery chemicals are not a beautiful thing to ingest, but at the same time, they attract our eyes to the photographs as well. So, it’s a way to invite the viewer in and be mesmerized by it.”

A little girl under a runoff pipe in Indonesia. Liquid mercury is used in small scale mining, and it contaminates the water, soil, and air.
Credit Larry C. Price
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A little girl under a runoff pipe in Indonesia. Liquid mercury is used in small scale mining, and it contaminates the water, soil, and air.

Qualified Success

Larry C. Price is good at making people pay attention. Last year, he did a story he did on compression mining—an absurdly dangerous form of underwater gold mining. It requires workers to swim down into murky mines. In order to breathe, miners use very long, thin plastic tubes connected to air compressors above ground.
 

Price has a series of photos of the hands and feet of child laborers.
Credit Larry C. Price
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Price has a series of photos of the hands and feet of child laborers.

After the story aired, the Philippines banned compressor mining.

Price is quick to point out that just because there’s a law doesn’t mean it’s enforced,   and it’s doubtful that these practices are being regulated. But it does mean that someone, somewhere had to acknowledge that these things are happening.

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Price’s photo essays can be viewed at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and his stories, including his Emmy-winning compression mining piece, are available at PBS News Hour.