You think your job’s shit? You’ve got nothing on the labourers who harvest guano on the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru. Every few years they head across the ocean to these barren rocks to collect sack-loads of guano – bird shit – to sell as fertiliser.
But the trade in guano isn’t what it used to be. Once, nations went to war over these shitty islands because of how valuable guano was. The Great Guano Rush (seriously) of the 1800s made people rich beyond their wildest dreams; these islands were scatological goldmines. Chemical fertilisers put an end to all that in the early twentieth century, and now the islands have sat uninhabited for over a century, recolonised by the birds that made it worth fighting over in the first place. Workers return only intermittently to get their hands on the brown gold.
Vietnamese artist Dinq Q. Lê’s film captures one of these harvests. You stand dwarfed by three immense screens, one showing the workers shovelling guano and heaving bags, another showing their grim lodgings and the third filled with swooping, drone-based shots of the islands themselves. Alongside the screens are a series of 19th century pictures of the islands and a map of territories claimed by the USA.
The work is powerfully unsettling, helped no end by Daniel Wohl’s mournful soundtrack. These islands are so vile, so barren and inhospitable, but they tell a brutal story of economics, migration and colonialism. Once, the mountain of guano here was so massive, and so valuable, that nations tore each other apart to claim it as their own. But when the value dropped away, so did the interest, and the islands were abandoned. Used, abused and disregarded. It’s a beautifully shot story of economic destruction, geopolitical conflict and the human cost of it all.
You leave feeling grubby, guilty and a little battered. It makes you pretty glad that at least you don’t have to shovel bird shit into a bag when you get to work today.