Silent Canary explores the history of a former mining town in Belgian

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This article was originally published in issue #7893 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

There’s an absence at the core of Silent Canary, a project by the Netherlands- based Italian photographer Filippo Maria Ciriani. It depicts the Belgian town of Kelmis, a place whose raison d’etre has ceased to exist. Straddling the present-day Dutch and German borders, between 1816 and 1920 it was the core of a microstate called Neutral Moresnet. Kelmis lies atop one of the largest zinc spar deposits in Europe. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was parcelled off into a shared dominion by, first the Netherlands and Prussia, then Belgium and the German Empire.

Effectively governed and developed by the Vieille Montagne mining company, Neutral Moresnet flourished, and its population boomed. “The company shaped the landscape and its needs,” explains Ciriani. “They built streets and houses, giving the initial structure of the city. And they founded several clubs that still exist, such as a choir and a shooting club.” Residents were officially stateless. He adds, “What does it mean to be a citizen of an artificial country, a place where a company is in charge?” The mine closed in 1885, and Neutral Moresnet lost its purpose, eventually becoming absorbed into Belgium in the aftermath of the First World War.

Ciriani came across the story in 2018, while rambling up the Vaalserberg, a large hill that stands at the tripoint between Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. “I wasn’t homesick,” recounts Ciriani, who grew up in Italy’s Alpine north-east, “but I wanted to get close to something familiar. There is nothing more so to me than walking up mountains.” He chanced upon an information board expounding the history of Neutral Moresnet, and his interest was piqued.


“At the time, I wanted to do projects about how the past still shapes the present, but I couldn’t find a personal connection,” he says. He discovered that plans were afoot to potentially reopen the mine, both for the remaining zinc (valued at €4bn) but also for germanium, a rare element used in circuit-based devices such as LEDs, fibre-optic systems, smartphones, and cameras. “The camera I was holding in my hands, and the phones we have in our pockets, link us all to the story,” he insists. Silent Canary thus implicates the photographer in the cycle of consumerism that brought Neutral Moresnet into being, and may jolt it into action again.

Shot in a metallic black-and-white that evokes the absent zinc, the project alternates portraits of Kelmis’ residents with depictions of its natural and architectural landscape. It is the product of numerous encounters and conversations with the locals. “I always enter as a researcher, and for this project I really conducted social research,” he explains. “I walked the territory, bouncing from one person to another, and conducting interviews. I was actually starting to stay in people’s houses.”

Although Ciriani does take us to the threshold of the mine – one photograph peers down a disused tunnel to the pitch-black space beyond — his focus often turns to those he met, the vast majority of whom descend from the miners. One image shows a woman looking up at a portrait of her father, dressed in full mining apparel; another has a man lying blissfully in the parkland that was once the mine’s waste dump. “The picture I like most,” says Ciriani, “is this close-up portrait of an old man with his eyes closed; he was walking in the ruins of the mine. Three months after I took the picture, he died.”

Traces of Neutral Moresnet’s period as a low-key state continue to vanish. In 2018, sensing the site’s potential to generate profit, the Wallonian government bought the mine’s site from Vieille Montagne’s successor company, further entrenching its Belgian identity. But the desire to exploit its rich land remains. “We don’t know if the mine will open again,” says Ciriani. “But we know that there is this capital under the soil of the city. It’s like a deposit in the bank – one day, someone will take it.” Until then Kelmis continues to exist in its curious slumber, silently beholden to the mine that gave it definition.