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Photographing the Young Warriors of Smokey Mountain

In the Smokey Mountain community located in Tondo, people make a living through the production of charcoal. Half of the people working there are under the age of 17.

In January Spanish photographer Manu Mart visited the Philippines to photograph victims of the recent typhoon. While there he found the Smokey Mountain community located in Tondo, one of the poorest regions in Manila. The families and children living there scavenge rubbish and make a meager living off of wasted cables and metals. The major income in the area is earned through the production of charcoal in outdoors ovens. Fifty percent of the charcoal workers there are under 17 years old.

Due to the low housing standards, child labor, poverty, and poor hygiene, life expectancy in the area is just 40 years. Mart is now using his images to promote the NGO project ALIVE, which is working to protect children from a life in the charcoal stacks.  

VICE: How did you find out about Smokey Mountain?
Manu Mart:
I met the person in charge of an NGO in Smokey Mountain called Malaya Kids Ministries. I told them I was a photographer, and they liked the idea of doing a project there. I lived in a church nearby owned by the NGO and slept there with some orphan kids who work in the charcoal mines; they just take turns and sleep in the church some days.

What were the main issues you found in the community?
Everything. The situation there is so difficult and complicated that when I started working there I didn’t even know what to focus on, because everything was stimulating as a photographer. Little by little I figured out the group that had the toughest conditions were the kids and young people.

How many hours a day do the kids work?
Approximately 13 to 14 hours a day. The kids don’t get paid; their main job is scavenging in the remains of wood or metal objects like nails or cables they can sell. They live off whatever they can find.

That sounds like an inescapable situation.
It depends on the families. Some families have managed to build little stores and businesses in Smokey Mountain, so these families little by little have gone out of the charcoal production. Then there are the kids who don't have families and live there, sleeping around the charcoal ovens.

It’s strange to say, but the kids don’t look very sad in your project. It seems they are still normal kids. What’s their attitude like?
In the end, they are kids. It’s their reality, and I never heard any kid or person saying, “I don’t want to be here.” The kids live the reality they have and do it the best they can, even in tough conditions.

What health issues do the charcoal mines have on the people?
All kind of diseases: tuberculosis, hepatitis B, respiratory problems, and everything that you can get from breathing smoke from charcoal that is burning constantly. The long-term consequences are fatal.

Tell us about the project ALIVE.
It is a project created by Malaya Kids that aims to support these families, giving them alternative lifestyles so they can create different businesses or stores and get out of charcoal production. Also, the objective is to get them to school, so even if they don’t take them out of the mines, they at least work fewer hours.

How do locals regard the kids scavenging in rubbish? Are they compassionate or callous?
Well, Smokey is in the middle of various slums. The life in Tondo is really hard, so the community is not above of Smokey Mountain. No one is compassionate or callous—everyone is in the same situation of poverty, and they are all living the same reality of the neighborhood.

In photojournalism there’s always this debate on the limits of photographing poverty. Sometimes it seems to be more for commercial purposes rather than for making a change.
As long as you are reporting and making people aware of the issue, it’s fine. Photographing poverty for the sake of it should never be done. As photographers we are here to tell the stories that are happening in the last corner of the world or next door. The real problem of photographing poverty is when it’s done because it’s easy or accessible and you put yourself in a higher rank from that situation.

What's the saddest thing you saw?
It’s hard to tell, but photographing Smokey Mountain was not a sad experience. I always try to keep in mind that it is their reality—of course it’s an unfair situation, but it exists. If you let all these feelings of sadness get to you, it is very hard to do a photographic project.

Doesn’t the inequality piss you off?
Of course. The problem is that it’s something that is present all over the world. You can’t fight against it, but as a photographer you can tell the stories and report them.

More of Manu Mart's project can be seen here.

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Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart

Photo: Manu Mart