Largely taken for granted in modern times, salt is more than just a staple in the kitchen. This mineral, demanded by our bodies, is one of the most important for human survival. Long before the development of refrigerators salt was needed to preserve food, this stopped it from rotting in hot climates allowing people like sailors to travel the seas with access to fresh food. The development of mass production and the industrial revolution set the stage for the traditional salt making methods to disappear as new cheap factory-made salt took it’s place. Yet, in remote regions of the world, there are people who still use the old methods to produce this vital mineral. Over a five year period, photographer Luke Duggleby and architect Mikel Landa traveled the globe in search of traditional salt making methods. From Ethiopia to China, Bolivia to Denmark, Senegal to Japan they found communities whose salt making method hasn’t changed for centuries. Their collaboration resulted in the creation of the book Salt of the Earth, which is now available through Mare publishing. More about it in the Q&A below:
How does this project fit into your photographic style? How did you get involved with this?
I am a documentary photographer who has always been fascinated by old traditions and cultures and the way they often precariously exist in the modern world. I am very interested in the system and culture of commodities of which salt was the most important for a long time.
It all began in 2003 when I travelled to a remote part of the Yunnan Province in Southwest China. The SARS epidemic arrived and China pretty much stopped most forms of long distance transport to try and curb its spread. Fortunately for me, I was stuck in a stunning part of the world, high up in the mountains of a Tibetan dominated region. It was then that I heard of these ancient salt terraces in a remote valley and, after asking around, found someone who would take me. It was an incredible place, clinging to steep valley slopes above the River Mekong. This photo-series became my first ever published work in The Sunday Times Magazine in the UK.
At that moment I realised what a fascinating topic salt was and wondered if there were other places equally as special. But I was a young photographer trying to forge my career, and having no idea or the money to start such a project—it was pushed to the back of my mind.
You worked with another photographer on this book, how did the collaboration come about? Were there any advantages or disadvantages to it?
In 2008 I received an email from a Spanish architect called Mikel Landa. He had seen my work on the salt terraces in Tibet and wanted to go. As an architect, he wanted to study the wooden structures used because, at that time, he was the Director of a foundation restoring a place in Northern Spain that made salt in exactly the same way as in Tibet. I replied, offered help about how to visit, and, as a footnote, mentioned that I have always been interested in salt and thought it would make a wonderful book documenting other traditional salt making places around the world. He very quickly responded saying he had the same thoughts and suggested we do it together. I heartedly agreed and the salt project was born.
The collaboration was one of the best things about the project. We are very similar people in many ways so immediately got along very well and became good friends. We agreed to share the sites depending on our geographic location, as I am based in Bangkok and he was in Spain. He documented all the European sites and I did most of the Asian ones. Then Africa and the Americas were shared, making it an even 15 each. This saved us a lot of money and also provided a visual variety for the book as it was being produced using two sets of eyes.
Were there any challenges involved with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge for this project was finding the sites. While some, like Uyuni in Bolivia are very well visited, others in countries less frequented have far less information on them. It took many hours, days, even weeks, of research to find the sites and then try and assess if the sites were worth going to before we spent the money to go there.
What was involved in planning/preproduction?
The aim was always to make a book so we knew we had to have a good geographical spread of places. Some continents, especially those in the developing world, naturally have more places because the lack of infrastructure there has kept the place remote and hard to access. In other places, especially North America, it was very hard to find any sites as there are none left. But for that we focused on a company that was trying to bring back the old ways, in effect showing us the future of the artisan salt industry.
It seems like you travelled a fair amount to create this project, was there any place in particular or story you were struck by?
With 30 sites in the book on every continent on the planet, we travelled a lot. It’s very hard to choose one site to say that was the best because they are all amazing places. But if I had to choose personally from a photographic point of view I would have to say that my best series was taken in Pakistan in the pink rock salt mines of Punjab Province.
What has the reaction to the images been so far?
We are keeping it quite close to our chests until it is published on December 1st (a small collection of my images can be seen on my website) but, from what people have seen they are often astonished by the sheer variety and ingenious methods that are used to make something we all take for granted. My favourite reaction is always when a person from that particular country says ‘I had no idea this even existed!’. This tells us we did our research well and found the truly special places.
Any future plans for this project?
The book will be published first in German by mareverlag and will go on sale in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Our plan is to then find a publisher who will translate it into other languages, particularly English. We also hope to exhibit the images but that is still being discussed.
Did you learn anything through the creation of this series?
This is by far my largest project in terms of time taken and money spent. I learned that while the financial burden can be daunting at times if you can make it through that, the reward and feeling of producing such a project is like no other.