Coober Pedy is not a ghost town in the middle of the Australian desert, it is an extraordinary subterranean universe. Men and women dive into the dark tunnels of the opal mines to dig the walls that might earn them their dreams. Chilean photographer Tamara Merino lived in the miners’ cave houses for more than a month and brought back a record of their surreal existence. She spoke to us about the magical world of Coober Pedy.  

Fisheye: How is life in Coober Pedy?

Tamara Merino: The miner lifestyle in Coober Pedy is not traditionally associated with human life. Martin, a miner I spent some time with, lives twenty-five meters under the red soil, where he has been looking for opal for over twenty years. His underground house is an old mine: its walls and roof held the promise of containing plenty of opal. He told me, “I got my own bank if I want to get a shovel out”. He says he is the king of an entire hill. He doesn’t have neighbours, pollution, light or sound contamination. He will never hear any sound other than his own echo on the walls. For him this kind of lifestyle is freedom. I remember being in Martin’s underground house and feeling an immense peace and joy. There are no rules on the work of miners. There is no such thing as time, schedule or day off. They work when they want, and if they find something, they will forget about day or night.

How did you discover this place?

I first discovered Coober Pedy in November 2015 while traveling in a van with my boyfriend around Australia. We got a flat tire and stopped in what we thought was the middle of nowhere. We discovered, however, that we were actually in the midst of an incredible underground community, where intimate daily life is invisible to those passing by on the highway. We began to wander around and discovered an amazing underground Orthodox church. We walked on a red carpet down the church, and when we were down there it felt so unreal and magical. I immediately knew this was a place I wanted to stay for longer.

Joe Rossetto, an Italian immigrant, lives underground and operates a subterranean museum that holds his private collection of stones, fossils, opal, and antiques found in the desert around Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy, Australia 2015.
An oil painting showing piles of dirt made by a drilling machine hangs on the wall of an underground house. Coober Pedy, Australia 2016.

Why did you decide to create this body of work?

I was totally enchanted by this mysterious lunar landscape and intrigued by the underground living of this remote and timeless place. I was fascinated by the fact that a stone can drive people into the deepest joy or misery. I wanted to be part of it, and I got to do that. I sought to understand and to participate in their daily life, which felt so different from my reality. Coober Pedy is a place wrapped in thousands of stories of joy, solitude, love, opals, murders, money and nostalgia, but it is also a place that has given many people a new life.

How do you think this tension towards opal shapes the lives of these people?

It is a crazy and unusual life; they could be millionaires 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 awaits those who go after its allure. Opal fever can drive people into madness, ambition, greed, despair, distrust and obsession. They want to catch an almost impossible dream and they work for so many hours in hard conditions every day, without knowing where to find it or if they will ever find it.

Can you elaborate a bit on the process: how much time it took, how you approached the people?

When I first got there, I walked around the streets for five days without finding a soul. I rambled for hours every day, with my face wrapped in dust and the forty-seven degrees of dry heat burning my face. I felt the loneliness and the immensity of the vast desert land. Finally on the sixth day we met Gaby, a German woman who is one of the few female miners living in Coober Pedy. She and her husband invited us to stay at their home for as long as we wanted. Inside their cave-house, the outside heat turned immediately into fresh air. Jürgen, Gaby’s husband, was the first miner to take us down the mine where he was working. We went down fifteen meters sitting on an electric winch, through a hole about one meter wide.

Why do you photograph?

Photography allows me to approach people and tell their stories in an intimate and honest way. I am inspired by everything that is related to human beings, their condition, and the way in which they coexist with their peers and their surroundings. My passion is to document and portray communities or people that engage my five senses. Through my photography I aim to create stories that connect us with our local and cultural identity as a whole, despite our differences in features, customs, religion and ideologies.

From "Underland" © Tamara Merino
An unexpected storm hits Coober Pedy at the beginning of 2016, dropping the equivalent of half the amount of water that would fall in a full year in only two days. Miners need to wait for the ground to dry in order to go back to work. Coober Pedy, March 2016.
Opal is one of the most valuable gemstones in the world. Its price varies between one and ten million dollars, depending on its type, color and weight. Coober Pedy, Australia 2016.
Underground Orthodox Church built in 1993 by the Serbian community. Every Sunday the monk offers service. Coober Pedy, Australia 2015.
Drilling machines used to mine oil create mounds of dirt on the surface. Over two million shafts have been excavated for prospection and extraction of opal. Coober Pedy, Australia 2015.
From "Underland" © Tamara Merino
Italian immigrant, Tony Tramaglino, dreams of carving a luxurious house and underground museum out of this space. Coober Pedy, Australia 2016.
Jirayr Ayanian, Armenian silversmith and miner, smokes while resting after a long day searching for opal without result. Coober Pedy, Australia 2016.

Images from “Underland” © Tamara Merino