My Life in Oil

And other environmentally destructive activities

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 - 04:50 PM

Burning gas in Khurais, Saudi Arabia. A picture snapped by my father in 1978.

For almost his entire professional life, from the late 1940s well into the 1990s, my father worked as an engineer in heavy construction. He helped build petroleum cooling towers and plants that processed nickel, the metal found in everything from rechargeable batteries to guitar strings. Over his life, he also took pictures—thousands of them—assiduously chronicling everything, including his dingy work sites. Among photos of our family vacations, he kept images of refinery operations, open-pit mines, and mining camps.

I stumbled upon a stash of these pictures on a recent visit to my mother's house (my father passed away almost two years ago) and was riveted by the brutal honesty of the pictures. In so many of them, the surroundings couldn't be bleaker: scarred earth, industrial machinery, matte skies that seem perpetually filled with dust. But they reveal a strange and wretched beauty as well. 

In seeing them, I couldn't help but think of the New Topographics photographers of the 1970s, whose seminal images forced us to contemplate the implications of our man-altered landscape. Or the work of renowned contemporary shooter Edward Burtynksy, who, in a recent project exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., chronicled the ways in which oil has transformed the earth around us. To be sure, my father's images aren't as elegant or composed. But the reality they reveal—lots of destruction—is just as powerful. He also didn't set out to showcase environmental degradation. My dad was proud of what he did, proud of some of the engineering feats he was a part of, and the pictures he took were a way of recording work that he found meaningful. (That's him, below, to the right, standing before a microwave tower in Saudi Arabia, in the '70s.)

Felipe Miranda in Saudi Arabia, 1978But with the spill in the Gulf growing at ever calamitous proportions, the photographs also proved difficult to digest. I'm one of those bleeding-heart crunchies who likes to think I can maintain a low carbon footprint. I ride a bike, keep clothes until they're worn out and recycle my batteries. Certainly, I was aware of what my father did, but in an abstract way: we moved around a lot, to obscure international locations, near power plants and dams. (Civil engineering is not really one of those professions that captures the average child's imagination.)

Looking at the pictures, however, made me realize that my life, in a direct way, has been made possible by the extraction and processing of oil (and nickel and copper). Oil is what put food on our table. Oil is what funded our occasional family vacations. Oil is what sent me to college, allowing me the luxury to sit around and ponder the ways in which I could string words together. We never lived extravagantly. But neither did we want for middle class comforts. And I owe it all to oil.

It's easy to look at the industrial wastelands shot by the likes of Burtynsky and the photographers of the New Topographics and think of the damage as abstract, as something other people do. It's equally easy to wag our fingers at BP and demand a boycott of the company or an end to deep-sea drilling. But my father's photographs reminded me that I have not only played a role in our environment's misfortunes, I have personally benefited from them in the process—in ways that are greater and more profound than I would have ever cared to admit.

Note: To the best of my knowledge, all of the photographs here were taken by my father, unless otherwise stated. Photo caption information is taken from notes he placed alongside or on the back of each picture. By and large, I have left them as I found them. In some cases, due to fading, I digitally sharpened the photos to make details perceptible at standard web resolution.

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The staff quarters at the Toquepala copper mine in Peru, where my dad worked in the 1950s. The mine is one of the biggest in the Andes, more than 1.5 miles wide and 2300 feet deep.

This photo was likely taken by someone else, since the print size and quality doesn't match the rest of my dad's work.

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A conveyor at a nickel-mining operation in Marcona, Peru, 1967. Nickel is commonly used in alloys, such as stainless steel, as well as in household items like batteries
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Marcona's open-pit mine. My father worked here for a time in the late '60s.
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The nickel plant at Marcona, with something my father described in his captions as a "pellet stockpile area."
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Not everything was an engineering triumph. Above, a nickel conveyor at the Marcona plant collapses.
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The crushing plant galleries in Marcona. The nickel dust kicked up by mining operations is considered a human carcinogen when inhaled.
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A conveyor cuts through the Peruvian desert near the nickel mine operations in Marcona.
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In the Andes: A view of the Caletones copper smelting project, in 1968. It was in the vicinity of this job-site where my parents met. My dad was a project engineer; my mother a secretary.
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Building the Highland Uranium Processing Plant in Wyoming in the early '70s. I was born in the nearby town of Casper.
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The building of the Shar Chesmeh copper plant in the Alborz Mountains in Iran, 1976. In his notes, my father stated that the plant was intended to process 40,000kg of copper ore per day.
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The copper workings at Shar Chesmeh in central Iran. We lived in the vicinity, in the town of Rafsanjan, for almost three years -- during which time my mom learned how to haggle in Farsi.
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Copper processing infrastructure rises amid the Alborz Mountains. Copper is a key component in electrical wiring, such as the bits used in the integrated circuits that power computers.
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The mine operations at Shar Chesmeh, blanketed in snow in the winter of 1974. My father's commutes to work were often long and fraught.
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Cranes erect the Saudi city of Riyadh. We lived here for less than a year in the mid-70s, at a time when the city's population growth began to skyrocket.
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A worker's camp near Buraydah in Saudi Arabia, in 1978. As foreigners, we usually occupied fairly good housing. The local workers, not so much.
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The Sasol plant in Secunda, South Africa, which processed coal into oil/gas. By the '80s, my father had far fewer industrial photos in his albums. Perhaps due to work-site restrictions in photography?
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Felipe Miranda, armed with camera, stands before a shaft to the Caletones coppermine in Chile, in 1969. His job was divided between desk duties and hard-hat work. He loved being in the field the best.


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Comments [12]

javier from Lima, Perú Sudamérica

Estimada Carolina Miranda: Mi padre trabajó en Marcona Mining Company desde 1959 a 1990 (cuando murió), la empresa lamentablemente fue expropiada por un gobierno militar en 1975, para 1990 la empresa estaba quebrada y en 1992 fue vendida a una empresa china que opera hasta la actualidad las minas de hierro de Marcona. Quedan en el recuerdo de quienes conocimos sus playas, excelentes casas, hospital San Juan tec. Tuve la suerte de ingresar a la Mina, San Nicolas, ahora es una ciudad pobre, estuve en el 2003 y daba pena. Felicito la publicación de las fotos tomadas por su difunto padre, si tiene más por favor muéstrelas. Gracias.

Nov. 12 2011 07:02 PM

Simon: For some reason, I am just seeing this comment now. I'll have to doublecheck the years that my father was in Marcona. For all I know, they knew each other. My father, unfortunately, has passed away, but my mom might know, since she was in Wyoming with him... I'll get back to you...

Jan. 19 2011 01:20 PM
Simon Porter from Los Angeles, CA

Your essay and photos really brought back some memories for me. I grew up in San Juan, Marcona from 1965 to 1973. My father, David Porter, was a civil engineer for Marcona Mining. at the time. Before that he worked for the Cerro de Pasco Mining Company in La Oroya where I was born. I smile also because our family moved around a lot too before eventually settling down. It seems that many civil engineering families moved around. I don't remember you but it seems we may have been in Marcona at the same time. You mentioned you were born in Wyoming. I had a friend in Marcona by the name of Allen Peterson. He and his family were from Wyoming too. Perhaps you knew them? I've been trying to research Marcona, particularly some of the people who were there when I was there but have not had much luck. Have you been back since you left? I have not but may do so at one point. I wonder how much it's changed? Take care.

Sep. 24 2010 03:02 AM
Santnamor2013 from Rio de Janeiro


No, my father did not do the sketches on napkins as far as I know...but may be I guess! heeh...

best regards,


Jul. 16 2010 01:15 PM
Jim Linderman from The Midwest

a very nice interview. Informative, pleasant and well done. Good Job, and thanks for sharing.
My take, less artful but no less subterfuge of seething undercurrent is Here. Thank you C.

Jul. 12 2010 03:29 PM

thanks for the nice comments, folks.... much appreciated!

@santnamor2013: so funny about your dad. did he also do engineering sketches on napkins? mine was relentless...

Jul. 09 2010 12:50 PM
Santnamor2013 from Rio de Janeiro

It was nice to read... I was curious because my father is a civi eng. and he does the same that your father did somehow....he collect these pictures from his working sites...and then show to me what is and try to explain it...until I can not understand anymore...he also keeps it alltogether with family pictures...
He gave to me much understanding of the world...of how to "build it"...+science...and I became an environmentalist...
B.regards! ciao...

Jul. 08 2010 07:35 PM
Jim Linderman from The Lower 48

Striking photos, and yes...a legacy to think about. The spill makes me furious too. But we are all cogs in some type of machine. Love your father and the life he left you to work with. Thank you for sharing a personal piece. We are all lucky to be here to grapple with our past, that is a gift he left you and I'd say you are doing him proud.

Jul. 07 2010 06:28 PM
Dan from Orlando

What a wonderful and revealing collection. At the time we thought we were building, creating and being innovative. It dissolved over time with over-consumption, greed and unwillingness to research innovative new resources. To every man like your Dad, who worked with his hands to build this country, we are in your debt. But then the looters took over.

Jul. 07 2010 05:27 PM
Ken Wheaton

Great stuff. Imagine 60 years from now someone else writing something similar. "Here are photos of my mom in what was then Bolivia. She worked in the lithium mining industry, which fueled the electric car industry ..."

Jul. 07 2010 11:18 AM
howie at sky pulse media from Andromeda Galaxy

This was awesome Carolina! Now I know more stuff about your dad. I spent 7 years having the Refineries and Power Plants in LA/OC as my clients. Crawled all over those buggers. All will be superfund clean up sites when they get decommissioned. Yet they paid for my life for 7 years. Great perspective!

Jul. 07 2010 11:14 AM
Rosa Lowinger from Los Angeles, CA

This is an awesome essay and this collection merits a book contract or a gallery exhibit.

Jul. 06 2010 11:25 PM

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About Gallerina

Carolina A. Miranda is a regular contributor to WNYC and blogs about the arts for the station as "Gallerina." In addition to that, she contributes articles on culture, travel and the arts to a variety of national and regional media, including Time, ArtNews, Travel + Leisure and Budget Travel and Florida Travel + Life. She has reported on the burgeoning industry of skatepark design, architectural pedagogy in Southern California, the presence of street art in museums and Lima's burgeoning food scene, among many other subjects. In 2008, she was named one of eight fellows in the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program for her arts and architecture blog, which has received mentions in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In January of 2010, the Times named her one of nine people to follow on Twitter. Got a tip? E-mail her at c [@] c-monster [dot] net


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