“The very fire they sit beside” is a line from an old folk song most recently performed by 60s act, The Ian Campbell Folk Group. Capitalised, it’s also the name of Dan Wilton’s latest project: a photographic survey of the coal industry’s impact on the landscape and the people who live around Europe’s biggest plants, produced in collaboration with environmental law charity ClientEarth. “It really struck me as summarising the feeling of the whole thing,” he says of the lyric’s potency. “There’s all these communities that rely on the industry, but it’s also incredibly harmful to them.”
Despite efforts to streamline alternatives, there are over 250 coal plants in Europe today. In Germany, which has a population of over 80 million, a third of its energy needs still rely on coal. “I think the layman thinks that Europe’s got it sorted,” says Wilton, “but it’s not great.” In 2019 the project took him to nine countries including Greece, Poland, Germany, and Bulgaria, as well as the UK, where the photographer encountered those whose livelihoods remain intimately linked to the industry.
“Every fossil fuel story is a dark picture of a smokestack with loads of smoke coming out of it, and everyone's blind to at this point,” argues Wilton, whose own catalogue defies this trope with a soft palette that acknowledges the climate. “I always wanted to shoot it in a subtle way, and do large prints. Use a different visual language to draw people into what can be quite a dry thing to show.” The images are currently on display for a short run at London’s Huxley-Parlour gallery, where they thrum with the surreal, impossible tension of a coal-powered life on an increasingly unstable Earth.
VICE: How did The Very Fire They Sit Beside first take shape?
Dan Wilton: I'd been looking for a charity to work with and met ClientEarth in 2018. We actually discussed loads of the issues they work on, but when they described how in Germany, still roughly a third of its energy comes from coal – while it's seen as this green leader in Europe – that really piqued my interest. The aim was always to tell two stories: the human scale of it, and the story of local people who live and work next to them, who rely on it for income and in a way their sense of identity, like in Poland where there's a real pride to coal mining and everyone gets dressed up for Barbórka [the feast day of St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners].
And you started shooting in 2019, right?
We agreed to start in early 2019, then my second daughter was going to be born in August 2019, so I raced to do it before she was born, and failed. During COVID I could feel the work aging and was almost scared it would lose meaning, but actually it just changed meaning.
Do you think you’ll return to it?
Poland is the big missing piece, really. Germany's coal phase out date is currently 2038, Poland doesn't even have one. Unfortunately, because of the situation in Ukraine, Germany, and Italy have already hinted they might slow their phase out plan, because they want to reduce dependence on Russian natural gas. It's definitely front and centre because of the situation [with Russia]; I've never heard people talking about the energy mix of Europe before, but you walk down the street and people are talking about it now.
The project took you to nine countries. How did people react to your camera?
Some would view me as a threat – in Bulgaria we got set up by an old lady on the first day – but some places, like Germany, were very accommodating. At the same time, the Ende Gelände protesters [who occupy mines in Germany] didn’t want me to photograph them because the German police use any photograph online to identify them. There was a real sense of solidarity [shooting the protestors] though, so there's a whole range of emotions.
In terms of the issues they’re facing as a result of the industry, what did the communities you met have in common?
It’s a mixture really. In Bulgaria there'll be a lot of people who don’t want the mine to close, because there's nothing else. In a lot of the Greek villages, like this guy George I shot, they’re very conflicted – his whole village is almost encircled by the mine and it has been leaching these heavy metals into their natural water supply. But his job is working in the mine, and he’s completely isolated by the mine surrounding it. As a village they were trying to sue the mine, which they rely on for income, so they’re caught between a rock and a hard place.
Obviously, the environmental impact of coal is quite alarming. Was there any reassuring element to the project?
The Portuguese picture – where they’re playing football on the beach – that something could change so drastically in two years gave me hope. It was one of the top 30 worst plants in Europe, people were swimming in the water that comes out of the plant into the sea. But now it's completely shut down, ten years ahead of schedule. When they were trying to bring in a coal phase out plan, there were huge strikes; now the whole sentiment of the country has changed.
The Very Fire They Sit Beside is on display through March 12th; all proceeds from prints sold will go directly to ClientEarth.