TRACES : dark clouds
Project info

In 2006, I began to explore the most industrialized regions of China, from the rust belt of the north-east to the cities of Shanxi province, famous for their coal. It was not until the following year, with the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, that I first arrived in Linfen just before the week-long Chinese New Year holiday. For the country’s 150,000,000 migrant workers, mostly peasants escaping the harsh and poverty stricken life of the countryside, the holiday is especially important: this is the only time they are able to make the long journey home to their families. The urbanisation of China has provided new and better-paid jobs, and these new workers, mostly men, travel far from home to become factory workers, miners, construction workers and labourers, often doing the most dangerous jobs. Reports of accidents in coal mines and concerns about pollution had become common and the government, particularly keen to avoid bad news in the press, took action to avoid any risk of major incidents that could lead to social unrest during the holiday. Many mines and plants that were heavy users of coal were closed down. The sites I visited were often empty, a landscape of dust-coated industrial machinery. Wandering around these desolate landscapes devoid of life, I was struck by a new perspective. I began to concentrate not on the individual realities of the people who worked there but on the broader view that I was seeing the results of just one stage in the manufacturing process, a complex chain of events in which we, in our globalised world, are all complicit.

I pursued two simultaneous routes as I compiled images of the coal industry. ‘Traces’ explores the otherworldly scenes of the Chinese industrial hinterland, landscapes that seem to be the repository for all of man’s endeavours; a record of our material desires. In contrast, the images that make up Dark Clouds evolved into an intimate chronicle of daily life in these environments. From the epic to the quotidian, these interleaving chapters represent two overlapping realities: the human experience of the individual, the migrant worker, and vistas that intimate the existence of a much larger economic and ideological process, one whose momentum we struggle to control, a symbol our collective ambitions.

Ultimately, the brilliant glare from China’s metropolises can be traced back to the hinterland and its migrant workers. There, as in all of China, I see the dream of a nation, the cost and what is deferred for future generations.