Friday, February 14, 2014

I want to tell you a story...

A few years ago, I was occasionally employed as what is known as a 'photographer's assistant'.  A better term might be 'sherpa'.  But I'll get to that.

The particular job in question involved a commercial/industrial shoot in the far north of Saskatchewan, my home Province.  Mining is a huge industry here, employing thousands, thus the annual reports and advertising images are important.

This particular job, I was mostly loading film in the helicopter while the photographer was hanging out the door, feet on the rails, while we banked so a straight down shot could be taken.

Some of this work involved going underground, though.  What this meant, was getting into a small steel 'box' with 7 other guys, with no light other than one man's headlamp (those lamps on the helmets of the guys in coal mining pictures), and swapping places with a giant bucket of slag in a 2.5km trip into the bowels of the Earth.  The 10 minutes or so you are travelling undergound with almost no light, it's hard not to fixate on the fact that you are in a box at the end of a mile and a half long cable, with a mile of air beneath you, and no brake system to save you if things go pear shaped.

Reaching the destination level, and stepping over the foot wide gap exiting the 'elevator', I stood near the 100 odd pounds of gear I was to carry, and listened to the rehash of the safety dance.

"This is an instrument that counts the radiation you are receiving.  If you hear an alarm, or if your radiation intake turns this indicator red, put on this mask and run, don't walk, to the nearest safe haven zone.  If you hear anyone yell 'run', 'stop', or any other command, always assume that person is talking to you and obey.  Do you understand?'

Yeah yeah.

I picked up the two bags with light stands in them and slung them over my shoulder.  Then I grabbed the handles on the two soft bags full of light heads and camera gear, and followed the photographer and the safety/media officer.  All told, I was carrying roughly my body weight.  Through 11 inches or so of slightly radioactive muck.  According to my little ticker thing anyway.

Earlier that day, I was standing on a small mountain of Uranium ore, taking pictures of a front end loader dumping ore into what's called a 'Grizzley', which is basically two giant counter-rotating drums with teeth on them, that grind rock to powder between them.  I remember sneezing black goop because there was so much dust, looking down the loose pile of ore that led to certain gruesome death should I slide even a little bit.  thankfully, I was wearing protective eyewear, which kept the Alpha waves from penetrating my mucuous membranes, so at least cancer wasn't a result.

Anyway, back to 2km underground where I am slogging through 11 inches of (slightly) radioactive mud...

The photographer and the safety guy are going over the shot list, the first of which is where we take a shot of the guy who has to stand underneath the ore body, as the tunnel under it is dug, testing it for stability to see if it can be shotcrete.

Shotcrete is a thin gruel of a cement mixture, sprayed through a hose in this case over a wire mesh that is bolted into the rock face.   This is done to decrease the chance that miles of rock will crash down on your ass.  But the guys bolting the wire on will only do so when it's 'safe', so there's a guy who's job it is to test the recently drilled sections for stability.

We were going to take his picture.  While he did this.

Now, the job is simple, but scary as fuck.  Here is a guy, standing on a pile of loose rock because the drill was running, oh, 12 seconds ago, and made a big hole to explore.  The sides are important but the real issue is the roof.  And the only way to test, is to take a big pointy pole, stand under miles of potentially unstable rock, and poke at it trying to get it to collapse on you.

And my job was to stand 5 feet away and take pictures while he did this.  Under the exact same rock face, only I couldn't pay attention to the rock, I had to pay attention to the guy working (ie, get a good shot).

On the way to this shot, which was eventually taken, the three of us were walking about a kilometer from the elevator to the new shaft.  Along the way, I listened to the small talk, the shot list discussions, the bullshit.  I got bored, and eventually, I tuned them out.

Until I heard someone yell "STOP!"

Fair enough, I can do that.  SO I did.

"Back up!"  I did so, feeling a mite foolish.

"Turn around."

I did so.  And that was when I saw everyone was looking at me.

The road we were on had taken a subtle turn, and I was woolgathering, and kept walking straight.  As it turns out, almost straight into a hole.   I could see my footprints in the light from my helmet light, stopping less than two paces from the edge of a hole about 5 meters across.

I made my way over to the safety guy, and I remember asking these words exactly:

"So, if I fell in that, how long would you be listening to me scream?"

He said, deadpan and serious, "About 3 and a half minutes".

I'll never go underground again.

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