The Coal Haulers of Varanasi, India & the Fuji GFX

The face of a coal hauler from Bihar, India. (Click to view larger)

(Note: All these photos are taken with the Fujifilm X-T2, NOT the GFX.)

Late last month, Piet Van Den Eynde asked if I could help him produce a video. Piet was one of 20 photographers in the world who was invited to use the new, as yet unreleased, Fujifilm GFX medium format camera in their workflow. Piet, Serge Van Cauwenbergh, Alou and I snuck off to India to film him using this amazing camera in the wilds of India. As you will see, Piet certainly put the GFX through its paces, using it in places and on occasions where you would never think of bringing a medium format camera. It was all hush, hush till today. As you can see, Fujifilm has released our video to the world, so now we can talk about it. In fact, we will be doing a lot of talking about it in the weeks to come.

We needed some very special images for this video, and I believe we got them. One of the most interesting places we visited was this train yard. Piet made some amazing images, which you will see in the video and later on his blog. Our time there was very short, yet the scene we uncovered really deserved more than just a few images for the video. So I moved quickly to capture these images. I hope you can get a feel of the intensity of the work these men do on a daily basis.

Varanasi, like most cities in India, runs on both electricity and coal. The coal arrives from the mines by freight trains. Car after car of coal arrives in a half mile long train filled with raw coal. Each car needs to be unloaded and then loaded back into lorries for delivery. The problem is this process of transferring a ton or more of coal from a train car to a lorry is all done by hand, literally. Five to six men are assigned to each train car. It takes an average of 8 to 10 hours for the men to remove all the coal from the car. It is dumped next to the car ready to be reloaded into the lorry the next day by the same men. Then the whole process starts over again. The men wear flip flops or even go barefooted throughout the day. The coal dust is everywhere, including their lungs. Each man makes an average of 300 Rupees or $5 USD a day. I asked them if any of them get sick or have a cough. None of them seemed to want to answer me. I think they were suspicious. Frankly, they need the work. Most of them were from the next state over, Bihar. All their earnings go home to their family. A family that they may never get to see again.

After visiting these men and photographing them, we felt that our workshops need to me more than about taking amazing photos. We need to get involved with the places we photograph. As such, Piet and I are researching organizations that we might donate a percentage of our profit. We are in search of organizations that help people like these men and others we photograph to rise above their circumstances to a better life. If you know of an organization like this let us know.

Note: If you want to join Piet and me on our next workshop to Varanasi, India in late 2017, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the registration goes live. We announce open registration first to our newsletter subscribers. This is one of the perks of subscribing to the newsletter. Then only after 24 hours will we make registration public. The last workshop sold out in 1 hour.  When you subscribe, be sure to check your email for confirmation.

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A laborer has to break up the larger pieces of coal so they can be loaded by hand into the lorries.

 

 

 

 

After unloading the coal from the train, they workers have to clear it from under the car it arrived in. No coal can be wasted.

 

Roll after roll of lorries wait to be loaded up with coal for delivery into the city.

 

This and the photo below are of drivers waiting for the coal to be loaded into their lorries.

 

 

 

About Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer.

In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

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17 thoughts on “The Coal Haulers of Varanasi, India & the Fuji GFX

  1. Matt the images are amazing and heartbreaking in equal parts. We need – as you rightfully say – to do so much more than record extraordinarily scenes with our extraordinary cameras.

    • Anne, thank you. That’s exactly the way I feel. Help us find just the right non-profit to work within India.

  2. I watched the video and was disheartened at the level of posing and staging going on. I, myself have photograped for decades in India, but without the intrusion of a team, and without setting up contrived scenes. What happened to spontaneous photography, actually representing the reality of one’s surroundings. Just being there with a camera is questionable enough, posing, staging, re-taking shots is just making a disneyworld out of Varanasi. Please stop such insensitive intrusion – India is not a circus or a freak show.

    • I fully agree with Robert. These “very good looking” photographs published everywhere have nothing to do with a real life. But lot of spectators think that this is reality. Yes, this is reality, but slightly changed as we expect the reality has to look like. Not my cup of coffee…

      • Robert & Martin, thank you for your comments. I think you can tell from both the video as well as the photos in this post above there were two very different styles of photography going on. The shooting with the large flash is not for everyone and not every situation. Fuji wanted Piet’s off camera flash style in an extreme environment. India was perfect for that. I am sorry you felt we broke some code of conduct. We did not disrespect anyone and in fact as you can read above we are making plans to work closely with an NGO to give back to the community at large.

        • Matt, thank you for your reply. I understand Fuji’s need to get best pictures you can get “in an extreme environment”. They (Fuji) are interested in spectacular photographs in spectacular environment. In my comment I was talking not about the quality of the shots – shots are perfect and breathtaking. But this is not real life with real lighning. Presenting these pictures as reality is not the truth. These photos (including the light conditions) are not real (from my point of view, I was not there, but I many times visited India). Sorry, once again, the pictures are stunning…

          • Martin,
            Thanks for the kind remarks. We are talking about the photos in the video, right? Not the ones in the post, just to clarify. To say these photos are not real is difficult. But I know what you are getting at. Maybe say, they feel contrived. Well, they were contrived. Meaning, most every shot in the photo was set up and that includes the lighting. I think the big issue for some folks, you included, is you want them to be more photojournalistic. First, let me clarify, I am not a photojournalist, neither is Piet (but Piet can speak for himself). These photos are a portrait of life as Piet saw it. We didn’t miss lead anyone by saying we stumbled upon someone and this is the photo that came from the chance encounter. We did not claim this was “street photography” (whatever that is?). We never tried to hide what this was; thus all the behind the scenes video. We did not, at least I don’t feel, disrespect anyone.

            I guess, I wonder how the portraits Piet took here differ than the one I took at the top of the blog post or that Trupal Pandya took using a seamless white backdrop http://www.trupalpandya.com/head-hunters/?

            No, the photos that Piet took were not spontaneous and they were lit with an off camera flash. But I have asked subjects to look this way or that for a portrait before and I have used fill flash, yet no one every get upset over my photos. I think for some folks it was difficult to see the crowd that formed. Frankly, for me, that is intimidating. The interesting thing is, these subjects never seemed to be bothered by the crowds in the least. It was always more of an issue for us than them. I am pretty sure it is a personal space issue we have versus what they are comfortable. I have watched “street photographers” walk up to folks stick a camera in their face, literally, snap a photo and walk off. I have seen them talk a photo of people when they have asked them not to. I have seen them even use that ill-gotten photo on their website with pride. We did not do any of that. We took the time to get to know our subjects, by name. Those that we tool up for than a few minute we paid. Why? Because we used their time. Frankly, they acted as a model and thus their time should be paid for, it is only fair.

            By the way, Fuji didn’t ask Piet to do to India. I think they saw some of his other images from some of our trips and hoped he might. But traveling to India was just as he said in the video, his idea. I hope this helps you understand a little more about what we did.

    • If you read the very first line of the blog I thought I made it clear these images in the post are shot with the X-T2. Fuji has not lifted the embargo on the GFX images. This post was how the trip to make the video lead to the coverage of these men hauling coal. Sorry to disappoint you.

  3. The above photos are fine; at least they look a little more spontaneous. ‘Giving back to the community’ sounds grand, and may, of course, benefit some people, but staging and posing (as in the video) just looks cheesy, exploits people, and looks like stereotypes. It’s bad enough that Steve McCurry does it without others following him.

    • Thanks for your comments. Cheesy is a matter of perception. Exploiting people and creating stereotypes is another thing altogether. I am sorry, I don’t see how any of these create or perpetuate stereotypes. I lived in India for over 13 years, speak Hindi and return to India several times a year. I say all that to say; I think I know stereotypes. If you walk the gats of Varanasi, you will see each of these men and children, sitting in or doing the very things that were doing in the photographs. We did not make up these poses. They are meant to be well-lit portrait of these people much as they are every day. Each one of the subjects approved the images and in fact, every one of them received copies of the photos. Not because we felt we needed to appease them, they wanted them. They were proud to have their photos taken. They had never had such nice images taken of them before. The difference between these and a Steve McCurry shot is we never suggested (as we show in the video) that they were spontaneous. They are not used in a photojournalistic manner – Steve’s were.

        • HI Piet,

          Beautiful images. Are you able to let us know which off camera trigger and strobes were used?

          Thanks
          Sanj

          • Sanj, none of the coal haulers images were shot with a flash. All the images in the video were however. We used an SMDV flash system, the Bright 360.

      • By stereotypes I mean that the poses are too idealised, too perfect, but at the same time too expected. That seems fine to me if you exchange eye contact with a willing subject, or a few words, and manage to capture a moment that you see while passing – something that was actually happening, and in process, without staging/posing. But as soon as you get your subject to hold, or redo, you are selecting something that you have idealised – and why have you selected that particular pose…? as you yourself say, because you have seen them doing it many times before, in other words it is a stereotype that fits your idealised perception of them. It is, of course not a crime, not even wrong, it is just cheesy. Just not my kind of photography, and it does seem exploitative of them as idealised objects to be photographed. There is a side of Varanasi that has become like that – the ‘interesting’ characters who are waiting to be photographed, again, and again by photographers who visit the place. It reminds me of all the tourist snaps of the poses of the Sadhus at Pashupatinath in Nepal. Everyone must have one, and then a whole circus begins of sadhus waiting around to be photographed in their trademark poses.

        The ghats at Varanasi are a fascinating place to explore and watch the unfolding, daily rituals. It is a place, mostly, of unpredictable activity, combinations of events and movement that is visually unrepeatable. There are thousands and thousands of original images waiting to be caught every day. I just would have much more appreciated images that manage to capture more interesting and dynamic constellations of people, action and backdrop that better represent that visual vitality and unrepeatability, rather than the stilted and stereotypical poses in the video. Raghubir Singh or Raghu Rai managed to have captured this more spontaneous, more vital, authentic and serendipitous India. The work in the video, though quite luscious, makes me wonder whether this new Fuji is really particularly suitable for this more sponaneous photography. That is what I would most like to know.

        • Goodness Robert, it seems like you only want to complain. There are different styles of photography, and in these pictures they didn’t shoot them in a photojournalism style. Instead they were going for situational portraiture, or any other name denoting the same. That instead does require some type of posing and eye contact. At the same time I truly doubt they were meticulously posing these men, they aren’t professional models, so it wouldn’t even be beneficial. Asking for them to hold a position they were in and to look at the camera is hardly intrusive of the nature you accuse.

          If you have so many problems with it there are many other sites to visit. To only raise issues which have already been addressed time and again isn’t useful. Lookup the different styles of photography and understand that there are many ways to put a voice to a purpose. Also, I don’t really think Fuji created the GFX to be a street camera, so nothing wrong with shooting flash in those circumstances.

  4. Wow. I’m surprised by the objections generated by this post. The images in the video are portraits, not journalism, and should be evaluated for what they are rather than what someone wants them to be. Off-camera lighting and posing is typical of portrait sessions. And portraits almost always attempt to convey an idealized version of the subject—the best version of the subject. There is nothing controversial about what has been done here. Capturing spontaneous, serendipitous moments while one wanders the streets is a completely different thing. That the video’s images didn’t result from this process is only a problem if claims were made that they did.

    I wonder how many of these objections are rooted in a frustration with the fact that many images of similar subjects shot “street style” are not going to be able to compete aesthetically with what we’re seeing in this vid (or in Joey L’s excellent “Beyond” video—which you should absolutely watch if you haven’t already).

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