Hidden landscapes reveal how humans have reshaped the planet

For every “great creation,” humans have wrought “a greater act of destruction,” says this photographer.

I captured this image in the potash mines below Berezniki, a Russian town in central Siberia. Most people don’t have the visual or verbal vocabulary to really understand what’s happening beneath the ground in that remote place. And until I visited it myself and felt the pressure of more than a thousand feet of solid earth and rock and life above me, neither did I.

This is a landscape that was never meant for human eyes. The light of the sun will never reach it. And yet the materials extracted here—destined to fertilize immense farms in the United States and elsewhere—are an essential ingredient in the production of food that sustains the world’s booming population.

To arrive at this place—a 6,000-mile network of tunnels in utter uninhabitable darkness—my crew and I descended in an elevator large enough for some 40 miners and their equipment. It was foggy; the damp air would soon chill us to the bone. At the bottom of the shaft, we boarded trucks, the only illumination coming from the vehicles’ headlights and our headlamps. Although I’d worked in a gold mine before I became a photographer, this experience was unsettling. The tunnels would split and split again and then split yet again. I began marking our path with an X. If our lights burned out, we would be lost and no one would hear our calls. Voices fade away quickly underground.

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