The Face of Modern Slavery in Malawi: Håvard Bjelland’s Best Photograph | Photography

I took this photo last year in northern Malawi. This is part of a project for Norwegian Church Aid, an NGO that documents modern slavery in the mining industry. It’s very hard to believe your own eyes when you see what it actually looks like. These miners work in dangerous conditions with very little protective equipment. Their salaries are abysmal and their contracts are unstable, not to mention the terrible health and environmental impacts of such dirty work. But mining is the only option available to local people: they have no other choice.

I stayed in a nearby tent, waking up at 4am to begin the hour-long walk to the pits. By the time we arrived, the miners had already been working for hours.

One person we visited was paralyzed and unable to work, which meant she could no longer pay her bills. A few weeks after my departure, another miner died. Accidents are more and more frequent because the mines are collapsing. The working conditions there were among the worst I had ever seen.

My visit took place a few weeks before the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, where all world leaders came together to discuss how to deal with the impact of coal on the environment. But as they spoke, that was the reality on the ground. The damage caused by coal is not only the environmental impact of emissions when it is burned, it is also how dangerous the production process is for those who work in the mines.

What struck me in this photograph are the contrasts. The beauty of the landscape compensates for the cruelty of the scene. The greenery of the hills underlines the blackness of the coal. And the soft morning light that strikes this man, Zikani Musafili, illuminates his expression of deep sadness staring intently at the viewer. I like the quality of the composition of the outstretched hand – that serendipitous moment really changes the picture.

I always want my photographs to build a relationship between subject and viewer. I want to be close to people in difficult situations but with dignity, and allow others to experience this closeness.

I take these photos to try to tell the difference; raise awareness of working conditions, support people in their legal actions and help them obtain compensation in the event of a problem. It may be an old-fashioned view, but I think photographs should try to change things. You document the world and its evils so people can stop things that shouldn’t be happening.

I did not choose to become an NGO photographer. The local newspaper I worked for in Norway closed its office in Oslo, leaving me jobless. I had to make a change, but it worked great for me. Being in an activist organization rather than a newspaper, I feel like the gap between taking a picture and making a difference is somehow smaller.

The decline of the newspaper industry worries me. I was not the only one to lose my job. Much of the best work these days is done by freelancers working on specific projects and developing their own ideas, which they are then funded to pursue. The daily work of photojournalism is no longer as strong as it used to be. But the best work done today is better than ever: it just happens in different places and in different ways.

I am more eager than ever to do this work. I have not lost my hunger and the experience has given me skills that I did not have when I started. Experience is a good thing – sometimes it feels like it’s not valued enough. It’s good to employ young people, but there are things you learn over a long career that you can’t assimilate right away.

I will never stop hating taking a bad photo. Images can help people in concrete ways. And when pictures can make a difference, they have to be good.

Havard Bjelland Photography: Kirkens Nodhjelp

Håvard Bjelland’s CV

Not: Bergen, Norway 1966
Qualified: Self-taught.
Affecting : “Cartier Bresson, James Nachtwey and the photographers from my local newspaper when I was a newspaper boy.”
High point: “Publication of the book Give Me My Life Back in 2014; a documentary about Norwegian veterans with PTSD, starring Bjørn Asle Nord.
Low point: “Losing my job at a newspaper. I remember taking pictures in the freezing north of Norway, reporting on Norwegian fighter pilots bombing Libya, when I got the phone call. But in the end, it gave me a new opportunity.
Trick : “Just keep working.”

Håvard Bjelland is a finalist in the documentary category of the Sony World Photography Awards. The competition exhibition is being held at Somerset House, London, from 13 April to 2 May.

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