The Charcoal Children of Manila

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As part of the Environmental Graffiti’s partnership with the Sony World Photography Awards 2009, we’ve been given privileged access to these spectacular but sobering images by one of last year’s finalists.

Small figures writhe and wriggle through a seething mass of stinking garbage, searching for something so precious that they scour the towering mounds daily. Children from the nearby slums, some barely kindergarten age, wade and sift through piles of other people’s disregarded belongings, ignoring scraps of food and other perishables in the hope of finding the one thing that is key to their survival – wood.

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Photographed by German photographer Hartmut Schwarzbach, these soot-covered children toil hard for a living as members of a charcoal burner’s camp in Manila, aptly named Aroma Smokey Mountain.

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With mesh collecting-sacks gripped tightly to their chests, and sometimes barefoot, armies of little children rustle through the heaps of garbage, bagging any bits of wood they find hidden among the rubble. Once they’ve collected all the wood they can carry they deliver the load to their families, who man the wood stoves. Some of the families have lived beside the dump for years as they depend on the small charcoal production chain for both income and fuel – all other alternatives are completely unaffordable to them.

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Along with their parents the children bring thousands of litres of water to extinguish the fires once the charcoal is ready. Wafts of acrid smoke coming off the burners fill their lungs all hours of the day, which together with the blistering heat make life on the charcoal mountain sometimes unbearable. But somehow, as with children everywhere, and in often the most inhospitable places, they still manage to smile.

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This image of little Annalyn was taken on her ninth birthday. Finding a beat-out red armchair was the best birthday present she could have wished for, considering computer games and shiny bikes don’t exist in her world. Food is scarce so like many children who work on the dump, Annalyn looks much younger than her years due to malnourishment, but she hopes one day to go to school to learn how to read and write and become a teacher. She wants to be able to leave this life behind and support her family. Even at nine kids can have big aspirations. Until then she knows she needs to lend a hand making charcoal so her family can survive.

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A staggering 40% of Filipinos live in abject poverty. That’s more than 30 million people; almost half the population of the UK. Many of them live in shanty towns in the cities, hoping for a better life, so work in places like the charcoal fields to earn some money. They often get to keep little of what they make as the local mafia demand a cut of the profits.

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Unfortunately, corruption plays a prominent role in Filipino politics, with many of the country’s critics saying that it is because of this there is such an unequal distribution of wealth. It’s thought the government do have the resources for change and to provide a better standard of living for those below the poverty line, but until there is a tighter control on the corrupt forces at play, children like Annalyn may never achieve what so many other children in the world take for granted.

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Hartmut Schwarzbach – Editorial Photographer

Based in Hamburg, Hartmut Schwarzbach (51) works as a photojournalist with the Argus Fotoarchiv, a photographic agency specializing in environmental and humanitarian issues. In 2000 he started a documentary and long time project on children right’s, travelling to many Asian and African countries. He uses a medium format camera for portraits and the 35mm for reportages and street photography. Most of the assignments he covers are for the German leading News Magazine, Der Spiegel and the catholic magazine, Kontinente.

Hartmut Schwarzbach was born in Hamburg and studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Dortmund. He spoke of his time in Manila:

“For a good photostory you need a lot of time. I spent years to get so close to the people living on the Aroma Smokey Mountain in Manila, Philippines. Together with my guide I brought many packs of pancit (noodles) to the families and paid school fees to some poor children. In the end it was a great change and sometimes fun for them being photographed.”

Visit Hartmut’s website for more images from Aroma Smokey Mountain.

*Read more coverage on the Sony World Photography Awards and the Prince’s Rainforest Project Awards here, and here.

Source 1, 2, 3

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