‘Gold is a symbol of value, greed and political power’ – The Canary and The Hammer by Lisa Barnard

The British photographer’s latest project sees her travel for four years across four continents, capturing humanity’s long-term pursuit of gold. We speak to Lisa to find out more about her substantial findings and reasons for starting the project.

gold bars

Providing a fascinating insight into the history of gold, Lisa’s project presents a series of flash-lit stories, archived imagery and snippets of text as a stark reminder of the our insatiable pursuit of the metal.

Over four years and across four continents, Lisa Barnard documented humanity’s profound reverence for gold. Sparked as a response to the financial crisis of 2008, the result is a publication titled The Canary and The Hammer – a culmination of the British photographer’s travels to China, Japan and North America, where she visited mines, NASA, illegal e-waste factories, scientists, research centres and various other locations in the UK.


Lisa, let’s begin by hearing about your project, The Canary and The Hammer. What sparked your interest in pursuing gold as the subject matter?

Gold is ubiquitous in modern life and it’s concealed at the heart of all technology. It has multiple uses, and it has this purity and beauty that is irresistible. Gold is also a symbol of value, as it represents greed and political power; we covet it as it’s a stable object of wealth.

There are so many stories that you hear about gold and we all have a personal connection and narrative – something we heard or a story that we were told. I was interested in connecting these disparate stories, from the world of mining and the brutality of those that work the land, the sexual politics of industry and its use as a barometer of high finance.

I used gold as a material to raise the question of how photography can respond to such abstract events and concepts. The result is a personal journey in which I tackle the complexity of material representation in these fragmented and troubling times.

In your opinion, what’s humanity’s relationship like with gold?

If we continue to mine and pollute the earth with chemicals that are needed to dissolve, then of course there’s going to be an environmental disaster. However, within e-waste there’s 100 times more gold per tonne than from gold ore, so it’s a way to satiate our thirst for the metal through means other than the destruction of the land. The thing about gold is that it’s stable and there is a finite amount of it; it is a barometer so it will, in theory, always maintain its value. Because of its inherent beauty, gold is always going to be attractive for people to buy.

As the series was shot over a total of four years in various locations across the world, was there a particular place that resonated with you the most?

I loved working with the Pallequeras women in Peru. The environment up high in the Atacama desert was extraordinary; it’s so dry, nothing grows and water has to be brought up by truck and it’s a three hour trip. The women scrabble around on the surface for ore containing gold, when tailings have been deposited from the mines below. Men can go and work deep in the tunnels, but it is considered bad luck for women to be below – the myth has it that gold will retreat into the tunnels.

The women have three or four jobs and they would also run the family life, such as taking kids to school and cooking food, while in the evening they make street food for some of the workers. They work extremely hard and hold everything together in the village. Their stories were heart breaking as many had left Lima, either to follow their husbands with the lure of wealth or to escape personal situations, like paying off debts. They were so welcoming and generous, and I felt helpless.


You’ve mixed image, text and sourced material within the project. Can you give some explanation into the reasons for collating archival material with your own works?

It’s always been important in my work to connect with history, and working with historical archives is really pivotal to that. There is a specific view of a history within archives, based on the value judgements of an archivist. Historically this would have been middle-class men within institutions, so what was catalogued and archived was and still is always subjective – it has a particular motivation. Images or information is donated by a family or individual, and someone decides whether that is interesting or not. This is a very strange concept for me and I find that process very interesting; I like to rummage around for things that are hidden from view.

What do you hope to achieve from The Canary and The Hammer?

The idea of emotion is important to my work – knowledge and aesthetics go hand in hand. The documentary element I feel enhances any work of art, as the story behind it is always pivotal to my enjoyment. So I make work that represents not only myself as an artist but work where you can learn and understand something new, both about art itself and, in this case, the topic of gold!

More like this