Ronny Sen, End of Time

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Nazar Foundation (here). Hardcover, 96 pages, with 89 color photographs. The book comes in a plastic slipcase box. In an edition of 500 copies, each signed and numbered. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Ronny Sen is a young Indian photographer, who grew up in Calcutta after his family moved in there in the 1990s. He turned to photography at an early age, initially as a tool to escape his reality, but eventually as a full time profession. His first artist book, entitled Khmer Din, was released in 2013. In 2016, Sen was one of the winners of a Getty Images Instagram Grant which supports photographers documenting underrepresented communities around the world.

Sen’s project “The End” was about Jharia, a coal city in the Indian state of Jharkhand, and its residents. Jharia is one of India’s largest coal fields and it is also host to one of longest running fires in the world – the uncontrolled blaze has been burning underground for 100 years. “Jharia is a place where historically, everybody has failed, from the government to mafia to multinationals. And people need to see this reality, which almost looks like a post-apocalyptic world”, Sen said in one of his interviews.

Most of India’s coal comes from Jharia. The mining started in the late 1800s under British rule, but intensified in the early 20th century. The first recorded fire broke out in 1916, and since then, about 70 fires have sprouted up, covering more than 100 square miles. In recent decades, open-cast mining has brought the flames to the surface, with devastating consequences for the local population.

Building on the success of his project, Sen has released a photobook with the apocalyptic title End of Time. The book is rather small, and comes in a plastic slipcase. The pages are hosted between two cardboard endpieces, with an exposed spine covered with transparent glue. A tree appears embossed on the cover; the brown color strips it of life. It is reproduced from the first image in the book: a fire burning underneath a tree in darkness.

The first photographs serve as an introduction to the mine: destroyed land, heavy smoke, burning fire, mud, lifeless rocks, and grey skies serve to describe a place with few signs of life. Grey quickly becomes the dominant color of the visual narrative, creating an eerie and lifeless atmosphere throughout the book.

An image of a barefoot boy as he wraps a blanket over his body is paired with another of a mine covered in smoke. His posture and gaze make us realize that this mine must be the place he calls home. Another picture is a profile portrait of a coal picker in a yellow t-shirt with a yellowish scarf flapping around his neck; his arms are crossed as he looks down, and we notice that he has an eye injury. The image on the right is the head of dead dog, its mouth and cloudy eye wide open as if death arrived unexpectedly. Again and again, the spreads capture the desperate reality and helplessness of life in Jharia.

As the mining expanded, so did the fire, forcing local residents to leave their houses and move to another area. There is still a large community of people whose lives depend on the mine, and they seem to have adapted to their grim circumstances. One of the images shows a line of coal scavengers carrying baskets with coal up a hill; they work early in the morning before the mine officials arrive, and the colorful details of their outfits stand in high contrast with the grey and smoky landscape. The photographs of destroyed buildings, abandoned houses, and pieces of furniture stand as a reminder of the fragility of human existence. Sen’s photographs show the ruined area which once used to be a green forest, and document the edge of survival in the apocalyptic landscape.

While the book might have benefitted from better editing and sequencing of the photographs, it successfully accomplishes its main goal, which is to bring attention to the life in Jharia. Like Sebastião Salgado’s images of miners in India and Brazil or Pieter Hugo’s pictures of trash heap pickers in Ghana, Sen’s photographs offer a dark view of the destitute margins of human civilization. As Sen notes, “everything looked ancient and at the same time, something that the future has in store for all of us”. As a project, End of Time spans both, forcing us to look back at these hard realities, and look forward with an increased sense of alarm.

Collector’s POV: Ronny Sen does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Ronny Sen, Nazar Foundation

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