In 2008, Swedish photographer Sebastian Sardi came across a news item about mining-related deaths in China. According to the report, an official statement on the number of deaths was incorrect: the actual figures were in fact much higher. What bothered Sardi most about the article though was the absence of photographs. With no images to access, he decided to visit the Datong mines in China to get a clearer picture for himself.
The visit piqued Sardi’s interest in mining conditions around the world. It spurred him to travel to mines in Kazakhstan and Russia before finally making his way, in 2014, to Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, which is known as the coal capital of India.
The landscape set his imagination aflame. “When I first visited Jharia, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Sardi. “The village was literally on fire and the ground beneath me was burning. Flames and toxic gases were oozing out from holes everywhere. I saw trees, roads and houses slowly being swallowed up through the cracks of burning pits and open flames. Children were playing in this apocalyptic landscape and people were living in houses next to holes that looked like gates to hell.”
Though many Indians are aware of the fires, not so many others know that the 280-square-km coal field is the site of at least 70 blazes – at least one of which has been burning for just over a century.
On his first trip, Sardi stayed in Dhanbad town for a couple of weeks. He travelled to Jharia every day with a local translator, who introduced the photographer to the miners. Over the next four years, he returned to Jharia several times to photograph residents living amid the burning coal fields. These images will be part of a coffee-table book, titled Black Diamond, to be released in November.
The first fire in the Jharia coal fields was reported in 1916. The fires are believed to have started through spontaneous combustion caused by the oxidation of minerals in the exposed coal. Despite efforts by the government and mining companies to extinguish them, they continue to rage. These fires, often just a few metres below the surface, have been spewing thick smoke and harmful chemicals into the air. The blazes often cause the ground to sink. For residents, it’s like living near an open volcano.
This is not the first time that the plight of Jharia and its residents has caught a photographer’s eye. In 2014, Indian photographer Ronny Sen documented the miners at work with his phone camera.
For Sardi, the mines of Jharia stood out when compared to all the others he’d visited. “I feel, because India is so densely populated, the mines, the workers, the people and everyday life all occurs at the very same location,” said the 35-year-old photographer. “It merges the elements of human lives, environment, labour and struggle in a way that just captivated me and made me want to do something. And since photography is my medium, this is the result.”
Sardi’s photographs vividly capture the lives of the people who live and work in the toxic conditions every day. In one, a little girl called Kumkum, is hard at work. “She was collecting bits of coal together with her friends and family at the dumping site of the mine which is close to the village where she lives,” he said. “The picture was taken high up on the edge of the site that is very steep. [That is] where the villagers and children get the coal from, constantly climbing up and down. It’s quite dangerous, to say the least.”
The miners dig with their bare hands and do not have access to any protective gear. Sardi’s work shows the barren lands with dried trees and shrubs, the blasting shelters, the cracks in the ground, the land around them on the verge of collapse. Everything is engulfed in a cloud of grey smoke.
During his visits, Sardi saw men and women gather around these fires at night to keep warm, all the while breathing in the toxic gases. Residents told him that people sometimes fell into the burning holes when the ground underneath them unexpectedly gave away. “I heard stories about people dying in their sleep as their houses collapsed in the middle of the night after huge cracks opened up in the ground, yet [the others] remain here, working and living,” he said.
Sardi hopes his photos will make viewers question not only the harmful impact mindless coal mining has on the environment, but also the power politics at play. He says the miners have a strong sense of resentment against the mining companies. They believe the companies are deliberately letting the fires keep burning as a tactic to force the miners to move away from their settlements so that the mining fields can be expanded.
It took several meetings for the miners to begin to open up to Sardi. They told him about their families, their housing problems, their precarious financial state and the injuries they have suffered. “Many talked about the experience of relocating to other places and the distances they travel to get to the local markets and doctors,” he said. “We would have light-hearted conversations too, about food, drinking, football and sometimes about love and marriage.”
According to Sardi, the miners take great pride in their work, which proceeds amidst a challenging environment. “I feel, underneath the dirt and coal dust, in the faces of these hard working men, women and children, there’s beauty and grace and I hope my photographs portray that,” the photographer said.
All photos by Sebastian Sardi.