photo roll

Photos: Greed has kept the hellfires of Jharia coal town burning for over 100 years

A new photobook by Ronny Sen captures the grim reality of the coal mining town in Jharkhand.

A tree is etched on the cover of photographer Ronny Sen’s book End of Time, with a small fire under it. It suggests in all simplicity, the creation of nature versus the creation of man. The fire is seen burning, with no desire to rest. In 2013-’14, Sen spent about three months in the coal mining town of Jharia in Jharkhand, while travelling with filmmakers Jean Dubrel and Tiane Doan Na Champassak. Sen wasn’t carrying any camera gear during the duration of the shoot. He did have his mobile phone though, and the series End of Time has been shot entirely on its camera.

For over 100 years, Jharia has faced raging fires, owing to the mining of its rich coal reserves. The first fire was reported in 1916 and since then, the blaze has consumed not only the landscape but also the health and livelihoods of the villagers who live there. “I wanted the book to be published by an Indian publisher, a non-profit entity, and also be affordable,” said Sen, who won the Getty Instagram Grant in 2016 for this work.

Published by the Nazar Foundation as a photography monograph and edited by photo editor Sanjeev Saith, Sen’s book has a very silent demeanour and locates the images at a comfortable distance from the digital medium, where the public first viewed them. At first glimpse, the spine of the book and the lack of page numbers remind one of another recently published photobook, Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers, but that’s where the similarity ends. End of Time as a book is a considered deliberation of Jharia’s suffering, which according to Sen, is “manifested with shards and fragments; random, scattered elements of human existence, a community without a future, plunderers of coal who move from site to site with blasting mines”.

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.

The book is slightly bigger than a regular school notebook, which makes it easy to carry around and refer to anytime. Perhaps that is its real purpose, for Sen’s photographs are not just objects contained in pages, rather an evidence of everything that is wrong in Jharia and in need of immediate intervention by the state. The first few pages of the book take one through Jharia’s desolate landscape, which is consumed by fire and fumes. All the compositions are vertical and were shot using no filter on the iPhone.

Saith saw about 350-400 photographs from Sen’s Jharia series at an exhibition in Delhi around two years ago and thought it would make for a good book. Sen said, “He [Saith] did a very unique job with my photographs. His way of seeing is not the way a regular photographer would look at images. His understanding of visuals lent a new life to my work and this book is as much his as it is mine.”

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.

There is a series of four images which may seem identical to the layman’s eye, but on close inspection, reveal a man sitting on a rock at the edge of his village, watching a mine being blasted at a distance, as another man gradually walks into the scene in the third and fourth images – the larger landscape remaining unchanged. This sense of inertia, of waiting and watching, as coal corporations blast illegally within 500 metres of Jharia’s villages, is a poetic intervention by the editor, though no less tragic in its portrayal of ground reality.

Throughout the book, the tone of the images lend darkness to Sen’s work, as if a layer of smog looms large over Jharia’s otherwise picturesque self. Nestled amongst the numerous images of landscapes and fires is the stark reality of what endless burning can do to human and animal life, by way of two portraits next to each other – one of a man with a half-disfigured face and the other, a dead dog. This is followed by several visuals of objects and spaces in abandoned homes, which were affected by the constant burning.

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.

There is not much text about Jharia’s state of affairs in the book, except for a note at the end, and that is perhaps a point to think about since the work is more in the realm of activism than an artistic depiction of the situation. There is no escaping Jharia’s reality and Sen is sure to remind one of the consequences of greed and capitalism. “Am I an excellent bookmaker?” Sen asked, answering, “I am not. But my work is political.”

In his book, Jharia could be an imaginary place. There is no real marker of identification in the photographs, but the struggles are there to see. The men and women in the book are coal-pickers, who take coal home from the site of blasting and sell it for a petty amount to make a living. One might look at the images and think of them as daily wage labourers, but these are people living with raging fires beneath their homes. “People cover their heads and run when there’s a rainfall of stones during the blastings,” said Sen.

“It’s like magic realism – completely unbelievable until you get there and see it for yourself,” he said.

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
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