The Shift Part I

It’s the 11am shift. Tata Steel have finally agreed to let me go down into the mine. The miners are all there and a bit surprised to see me. I make the most of the fact that they go through the main office one by one to leave their name and ID number before going down, to line them up and take a series of individual portraits.

When I travel abroad to photograph with medium format film, I always take my old plastic Holga with me. It doesn’t weigh a thing and if my other equipment breaks then it leaves me with one final opportunity to use my 120 film.

The Indians pose really well in front of this ‘camera lucida’. Their eyes are wide open, slightly startled, and I feel as if I’m looking at the same eyes seen the day before when they came out of the ‘cage’. Tired eyes that struggle to remain open, eyes that struggle to see the last of the day’s sun before returning to the darkness of night again.

Someone translates a 57-year old’s words. ‘We are lucky. There hasn’t been an accident for a long time in this pit. In both private and state-run mines there are deaths on a monthly basis. Sometimes they don’t even have picks and dig with their bare hands. If I have an accident, I know my son will be able to take my place here’.

For the past two years I have regularly gone back to look at this contact sheet and always stop at the same image. Photo n°5 on the second film. The man in the tank top whose head seems too big for his body. His tough, straight gaze that penetrates his frowning eyebrows never seems to want to let me go. An almost intimate relationship has grown between me and this photo over time. I have never felt like this about one of my photos before.

Tens of thousands of men go down into the mines of Jharia and Dhanbad every day, risking their lives. But I would like to know n°5’s name, age, see where he lives, follow him down into the mine, hear the sound of his voice. Now I just have to find him!

coal diary india miners portrait
Holga 120 N (available in our shop)
Kodak Tri-X
The Shift Part I
More photos by thomasvdd