At the Site of the Rescue

<p>Florencio Avalos, 31, becomes the first miner to exit the Phoenix rescue capsule after an accident trapped 33 miners for 68 days in the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile the night of October 12, 2010.. Photo by Hugo Infante/Government of Chile</p>
Florencio Avalos, 31, becomes the first miner to exit the rescue capsule on Oct. 12, after an accident trapped 33 miners for more than nine weeks in the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile. Photo by Hugo Infante/Government of Chile

Journalists from around the world are gathered in a special press area near Chile’s San Jose Mine to record the dramatic story of the rescue of 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days. Only one official photographer is permitted at the site itself.

UConn alumnus and photojournalist Gabriel Ortega. Photo from

Photojournalist and UConn alum Gabriel Ortega is the vital link between them.

Ortega, a freelance journalist based in Chile, is photo editor and assistant to Hugo Infante, the official photographer for the Chilean government.

Infante’s photos of the miners’ triumphant arrival at the surface and their joyful reunion with family members and welcome by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera are being posted to a flickr site as each one emerges. Uploaded, edited, and captioned by Ortega, the pictures are available free for editorial use worldwide.

The miners, who have survived more time underground than anyone on record, are being hoisted up 2,300 feet from where they were trapped in a capsule that can contain only one person. Each rescue takes about an hour, and although rescuers worked through the night, by morning only 12 miners had reached the surface, with 21 and three rescue workers still waiting to make their ascent. It promises to be a long day for Ortega and fellow members of the media.

Since arriving at the site on Sunday, Ortega has been based in the Chilean government’s communications office in a special gated area where only government officials, engineers, hospital workers, and selected family members are allowed.

Every hour, he must run up to the top of the hill where the miners are emerging, pick up the camera memory card from the official photographer, and upload the photos in order to make them available to waiting journalists at the press platform.

<p>Mario Sepulveda, 39, is the second miner to leave the San Jose mine with the Phoenix rescue capsule the night of October 12, 2010. An accident trapped 33 miners for over nine weeks in the mine located near Copiapo, Chile. Photo by Hugo Infante/Government of Chile</p>
Mario Sepulveda, 39, is the second miner to leave the San Jose mine with the rescue capsule. Photo by Hugo Infante/Government of Chile

“He is one of only a very few to have access to all this information,” says his mother, Isabel Berger, who spoke with him this morning via Skype.

Berger adds that their conversation ended abruptly, as her son rushed out of the office to pick up the next batch of photos.

“He hasn’t stopped,” she says. “He said he is so tired, he really needs a very strong coffee.”

Ortega graduated from UConn’s School of Fine Arts in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in photography. Then in 2005, he moved back to Chile, where he was born, to develop a career as a photojournalist. His assignments have included working as press photographer in Santiago, as travel photographer in Patagonia, and as web designer and webmaster for Foundry Photojournalism Workshops in Mexico.

In 2009, he returned to Chile and found work with Hugo Infante’s Chile-based photo agency, Agencia Stock. The agency secured a government contract to provide photographic services for the Ministry of Public Works and Ortega traveled within central Chile with government officials, documenting their work.

Ortega is also creative director for Nomadas del Sur, a tourist consultancy that he co-founded.

The year 2010 has been an eventful one in Chile, and Ortega has been close to the action. He was living in Puerto Varas in southern Chile’s Lake District when an earthquake struck in February. Within two days, he moved to Concepción and began dispatching images for Polaris Images, a photo agency from New York City.

Since the earthquake, he moved to Santiago and has freelanced for various media, including Delta Airways’ SKY magazine, as well as working as a humanitarian photographer for AmeriCares to document the construction of a field hospital in Angol, a city that saw the collapse of its hospital.

In an e-mail to UConn Today sent from the site on Oct. 12, Gabriel Ortega wrote: “My buddy Hugo will be the only photographer permitted in taking photos of the actual rescue, much to the irritation of all the international photojournalists here. However, due to the potentially fragile state of the miners as they are rescued, the gov’t [sic] has deemed only one photographer. Although I would LOVE to be there, don’t get me wrong!”