How I Gained Access to a Chinese Coal Mine After Government Said No

Coal miner China

For over two years now, I have been trying to photograph a coal mine in China to show the conditions of the miners. The coal mining industry in China has been called the world’s most dangerous; it is reported to claim the lives of over 5,000 workers each year. And it’s not only the miners who are suffering. In the mining areas of Yunnan, more than 60 percent of the children under the age of 14 are affected by lead poisoning.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government does not allow local or international photographers anywhere near the mines or miners. I knew if I wanted this story I would have to be patient — and persistent.

A Contact Pays Off

So whenever I was in China on a different project and had the opportunity, I asked officials and others I met if they could help me get to a mine. The requests were always refused, but over time I built up a reasonable stable of contacts in the Yunnan mining region.

Then, one day, one of these contacts called me. He said he knew someone who knew someone who might be able to get me close to the mines.

I followed up on the contact’s lead and ended up driving around China for several days, meeting with one person after another, until finally I found myself standing in the middle of a coal mining village in Yunnan.

Shooting the Village

Coal miners passed by pushing carts laden with mining equipment, so I quickly shot a picture with the main street as a backdrop. There were children playing on the streets, and I photographed them as well.

I was then taken to an upstairs room, where I had wait to see if the management would allow me into the mining area. Fortunately for me, the room had a view over the village — so I was able to get pictures showing it covered in coal dust.

The mining officials eventually led me to the entrance of the mine, where I waited for the workers to emerge.

Following the Miners

A tall man wearing a tin helmet with a lamp and a pick over his shoulder stepped out of the shadows and slowly made his way up the steps. I’m sure he was bewildered to find himself the subject of such photographic attention.

More miners followed, stepping up into bright sunlight. They were covered in coal dust; it was ingrained in their clothes, hands and faces. There were tiny pieces of coal embedded in their lips. Obviously, the cotton masks that hung around their necks were not enough to stop the coal dust getting into their mouths.

I followed the miners up to their changing rooms and then into the public baths, photographing them as they shed their mining gear and soaked away the grime in the steamy bathhouse.

Never Give Up

For two years, everyone I asked about this story discouraged me from pursuing it. They said I would never get the access I needed. Now I had it.

I plan to use the images in my upcoming book Hearing the Grass Grow, about villages disappearing around the world.

The lesson here should be obvious, but it’s one that can’t be stated often enough: Don’t give up on the stories you believe in. With patience and persistence, you can make them happen.