Mattia Panunzio

Story Life in the World’s Opal Mining Capital

© Mattia Panunzio

Mattia Panunzio’s ‘There is a lot to see if you look’ is a fascinating glimpse into life in an isolated Australian mining town.

─── by Josh Bright, June 18, 2024
  • Were you to look at it on a map, Coober Pedy might seem like an unremarkable place. Yet, this small, seemingly unassuming town – located amongst arid landscapes 800 kilometers north of Adelaide in South Australia – holds the title, ‘The World’s Opal Mining Capital’.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Building at dusk

    One of the most valuable gemstones in the world, opal can fetch prices reaching into the millions, depending on factors like color, weight and type. Following discovery of the gem in the area in 1915, a mining boom followed, as people travelled from across the country and much further afield in search of their fortune. Today, it’s estimated that 70% of the world’s opal is mined in Coober Pedy.

    Coober Pedy, takes its name from the Aboriginal term “kupa-piti,” meaning “white man’s hole”. This is due to the underground sandstone-carved homes known as “dugouts”, in which the majority of the town’s 1500 residents live to escape the harsh temperatures which often reach 45°C in the shade during the summer.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Portrait of a miner
    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Satellite in a desert

    Italian photographer Mattia Panunzio became interested in Australia’s mining industry (the cornerstone of its economy) shortly after moving to the country in 2019.

    He began documenting the subject in December of that year, but two months later, the pandemic scuppered his pursuits, and so he spent the ensuing year planning and researching, which is when he came across Coober Pedy.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Portrait of a man inside a bar

    M. Panunzio: It was a completely different type of mining from what I was looking for, but, reading that a community in the far outback would live in underground homes to find Opal, sparked my interest.

    I flew to Adelaide and drove up to Coober Pedy through the South Australian outback and that was already a unique experience. I grew up in Rome, which is a massive contrast Australian outback. My eyes were witnessing scenarios and landscapes they had never seen before. As a photographer that’s the feeling I’m after. Seeing new landscapes makes me feel alive and creates special and deep feelings in me.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Small house and a bush
    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio.Entrance to a mine
    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Portrait of a man in a cowboy hat

    M. Panunzio: I couldn’t wait to get to Coober Pedy and when I got there, I felt I was in the right place. I have obviously seen a lot of images, videos, and movies filmed there, but being physically there was different. I could feel the energy, see the people, breathe the air of the desert, and hear unique sounds.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Hands holding a piece of opal

    M. Panunzio: I arrived after a long drive through the South Australian desert and spent the first night in a caravan park where I slept in the car I hired in Adelaide. The sun is rising and the light is magical. The red earth of the desert glows with the early rays. The town is still sleeping except for the two men sitting at a cafè under the sign “Waffles and Gems”. I stopped and asked for a coffee, Jimmy (he is Scottish and owns the shop) asked me what brought me here.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Landscape photo of car and shops in Australia
    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Miner and machine
    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Portrait of a miner smoking

    M. Panunzio: We start talking about the long drive that everyone has to do to get to Coober Pedy. I drove 650km in one go the day before. The desert gets drier and drier as you make your way up from Adelaide.
    It is a flat desert and most of the people I spoke to before embarking on this journey, warned me that I would have gotten bored driving. But I found it fascinating.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Man inside an opal mine

    M. Panunzio: I was amazed by the feeling of driving for so long in a desert by myself with nothing around. Jimmy agrees and points out, with his strong Scottish accent, that this is the reason why they love Coober Pedy. Being that isolated makes it special. “ I have driven on that road so many times, and what they told you is wrong. There is a lot to see if you look”. 

    Documentary photography landscape of Australian desert by Mattia Panunzio

    M. Panunzio: It was at the same cafe that I met Dino, who told me his travel partner Raf, had Italian origins. That’s how I found out that, back in the day, Coober Pedy hosted a big community of Italian miners. This
    meeting pivoted the story I wanted to shoot in the right direction. Having experienced what moving to a new country means and how much energy takes, I felt a special connection with them. I could see myself in Raf’s grandparents who migrated from Italy to Australia after WW2.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Portrait of a man
    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Chair in the corner of a stone house

    M. Panunzio: Raf and Dino introduced me to a lot of different miners with many different backgrounds (Croatia, Serbia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and of course, Australia). The fact that all of them moved to Coober Pedy to look for Opal made them both a team and competitors. Every single one of them has a different story and different reasons why they ended up there. It was certainly a unique experience to meet them all and share this experience with them. I will be forever thankful to all of them and especially to Dino and Raf who made my journey so special.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Portrait of a man with Opal ring

    M. Panunzio: When I create my images, my goal is to provoke genuine emotional responses and inspire viewers to contemplate the world around them. I aim to capture authentic slices of life that invite viewers to connect with the subjects and narratives portrayed. I put emotions and thoughts into every shot but I don’t dictate how viewers should interpret them. Rather, I want individuals to engage with my work on a personal level, allowing their own experiences and perspectives to shape their reactions.

    Documentary photography by Mattia Panunzio. Landscape photo of a small house and car at dusk

    M. Panunzio: I believe in the power of storytelling through photography to spark meaningful conversations and foster empathy. By telling stories of people and communities outside the mainstream, I hope to broaden viewers’ understanding of the diverse tapestry of human experiences.


    All images © Mattia Panunzio