See powerful photographs that document the effects of European coal mining

Dan Wilton coal mining series listing image
Ende Gelände, Protesters Storm RWE’s Garzweiler Mine, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2019 (Image credit: © Dan Wilton)

Energy sources are very much in the news right now, and a new photo exhibition invites further contemplation of a topic that’s seldom out of the headlines. 

‘The Very Fire They Sit Beside’ opens today at Mayfair’s Huxley-Parlour gallery and chronicles a journey across Europe by photographer Dan Wilton

A collaboration between Wilton and environmental law charity ClientEarth, the project documents the impacts of the coal industry on the landscape and communities who live in its shadow. 

London-based portrait and documentary photographer Wilton published ‘Crane’, his first monograph, in 2017 and his work has been exhibited across the UK. 

He embarked on this latest project in 2019 and travelled across nine European countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, and the UK. 

Povrchový lom ČSA Lignite Mine, Czechia, 2019 (Image credit: © Dan Wilton)

The resulting images, a combination of landscapes and portraiture, depict the scars on the environment and the consequences for those who live near mines and coal power plants. 

The photographs shift between vast views across sprawling German coal fields, to depictions of everyday life in the UK and Portugal set against the backdrop of power plants, to thoughtful portraits of Greek miners showing the impacts of the industry on a human scale. 

‘The Very Fire They Sit Beside’ series illustrates the bitter irony of coal mining in Europe: that those who are affected by the environmental instability and illness wrought by the industry are the people who are the most economically reliant upon it. 

RWE’s Hambach Mine, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2019 (Image credit: © Dan Wilton)

The exhibition opens at a time when Europe’s transition away from coal is building in momentum. 

Since Wilton started shooting the project, many of the countries depicted have announced an end date for coal power, although damage continues to be wrought on the environment as communities wait for the shift. 

His photographs document the vast infrastructure of power plants and mines as many of them are being decommissioned; in a matter of years they may no longer dominate the European landscape as they once did. 

‘Yiorgos’, Coal Miner, Akrini, Northern Greece, 2019 (Image credit: © Dan Wilton)

“When I learnt about the vast scale of German coal mining that takes place just half an hour outside of Cologne – a city I’ve visited many times and been none the wiser – I knew that this was an important story to tell,” says Wilton. 

“Ending coal is crucial: it puts our shared, bright future at risk. Across Europe, people’s health, identities, and livelihoods remain intimately linked to coal, even as we strive for a just transition to alternatives. 

“I hope this series  makes a powerful case for governments and investors to take action, without making ordinary people shoulder an unfair share of the burden.” 

Towerfest Country Music Festival, Drax power station, North Yorkshire, 2019 (Image credit: © Dan Wilton)

All proceeds from print sales will go to environmental legal charity Client Earth, who dedicate their fight to tackling the climate crisis by using the power of the law.  

“Nothing threatens the future of our planet like fossil fuels – and the process of exploiting and burning them is rife with injustice,” says CEO of ClientEarth, James Thornton. 

“Dan’s work is a powerful reminder that the challenge of moving beyond fossil fuels like coal is present and urgent for people across Europe. 

“Dan Wilton and Huxley-Parlour’s contribution is emblematic of the unique potential the arts have to show us the fallout of climate change in all its guises – and galvanise us into action.” 

Sines Power plant, Portugal, 2019 (Image credit: © Dan Wilton)

Giles Huxley-Parlour, Huxley-Parlour Gallery Director, added: “Dan’s powerful pictures remind us that much of Europe is still more reliant on coal than many people might think, despite well-trumpeted green agendas from governments. 

“We are pleased to be able to support him and ClientEarth in bringing this to public attention.” 

Aboño Power Plant, Gijón, Spain, 2019 (Image credit: © Dan Wilton)

See Dan Wilton’s exhibition, until 12 March

‘The Very Fire They Sit Beside’ is open from 10-12 March 2022 at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, 3-5 Swallow Street, London, W1B 4DE. Opening hours are 10am-5:30pm. 

If you can’t make it, then all the works can be viewed on the Huxley-Parlour website.  

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Niall Hampton

Niall is the editor of Digital Camera Magazine, and has been shooting on interchangeable lens cameras for over 20 years, and on various point-and-shoot models for years before that. 

Working alongside professional photographers for many years as a jobbing journalist gave Niall the curiosity to also start working on the other side of the lens. These days his favored shooting subjects include wildlife, travel and street photography, and he also enjoys dabbling with studio still life. 

On the site you will see him writing photographer profiles, asking questions for Q&As and interviews, reporting on the latest and most noteworthy photography competitions, and sharing his knowledge on website building.