For over two hundred years, steel production has been key to life in Ostrava in the Czech Republic. In the last two decades the city, now part of the Czech Republic, has undergone massive de-industrialisation but has struggled to develop an economic alternative that will provide for its population. As a result thousands have left in search of work, whilst those who stayed have become dependent on the largest remaining steel plant now owned by the multinational company, ArcelorMittal.
The ArcelorMittal steel plant covers an area 10 square kms and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the neighbourhoods closest to the plant harmful emissions frequently exceed maximum EU health regulations by as much as 60 times. The heath impact is huge with 38% of children under the age of six suffering from an acute form of asthma and local residents frequently exposed to high levels of carcinogenic pollutants.
When ArcelorMittal purchased the facility from the Czech state in 2003 the contract of purchase obliged the buyer to improve the environmental performance of the ageing machinery. However, independent reports commissioned since the privatisation suggest pollution levels of the most dangerous dust particles have vastly increased. Despite this breach of European Union law, local and national politicians are reluctant to hold ArcelorMittal to account and the company continues to receive generous emission certificates and tax breaks as an incentive to stay in the country.
Ostrava’s population are split; whilst some campaign against the actions of the company; others, who depend on it for their livelihoods, argue in its defence.
I grew up in the Lancashire, in the North of England and spent much of my childhood watching what was left of Britain’s industrial age be either demolished or re-developed. Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, is in many ways is at similar crossroads in its history; on one side lies the legacy of an industrial age; on the other the promise of a new economy based around the service and retail sector. I was fascinated to witness this again as an adult and with these pictures have attempted to capture a sense of people’s vulnerability at this precarious moment in their city’s history.
This is my first serious photography series for twelve years, having recent returned to the medium after working as a cameraman and film-maker. This story was made between 2010 and 2011 during which time I travelled back and forth to Ostrava, getting to know the residents and revisiting them at different times of the year.
With thanks those who contributed their time, patience and presence to the telling of this story:
Dr. Peter Jancik
Dr. Eva Schallerova
Sri Kumar Viswanathan
The Burda family
The Gasporova family
The Rasik family
The Slipek family
The Roma communities of Kunčice, Radvanice and Zárubek
and to David McAulay for the Music and sound design on the slideshow.