Kyrgyzstan is usually associated with yurts and picturesque pastures set against a backdrop of endless ranges of majestic mountains. Another side of Kyrgyzstan that is lesser known is that of its numerous uranium and coal mines that sadly pollute the environment and exploit the poor for labour in return for starvation wages.

Located just 7km from the city of Sary Mogol in the shadow of Lenin’s Peak, an enormous open-cast coal mine excavation has become home to hundreds of people. Divided into two section: the official part where coal is mined with mechanical excavators and sold commercially, often for international export; and the unofficial area, a huge slag heap where the poorest come to scavenge for scraps to sell. Around the mine a hamlet of caravans and yurts has been established where these freelance miners live in primitive conditions with their families throughout the year.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union industry, factories, and many other workplaces including the national mines were closed down. Today, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest country in the world offering little opportunity for the majority of its unemployed men, women, so they have returned to the mines. With picks and shovels they collect discarded coal from the surface of the mountains earning less than three US dollars a day for their work. Many find themselves working just to afford the bread they eat and yet it goes on, year round, under the blistering heat of the summer and in the freezing temperatures of the harsh mountain winter. Fatal accidents are very common.

When photographing such stories I hope dispel the myth, naively perceived by comers from the West, of a pristine landscape of pastures and mountains dotted with traditional yurts and happy peasants. Behind this picturesque scene there is the unseen, the reality of poverty and hardworking people existing in a hostile environment.

Many people from the West travel to Kyrgyzstan, India and so on, looking for something exotic, oriental, different from their own culture to call beautiful. For me this is a naive attitude. Behind this “different” image there is most often a harsh unforgiving life. But we mostly choose not to see it. We see instead the beautiful landscape, perhaps it’s ancient temples in India or an unspoilt rainforests in Amazonia or the majestic mountains of Kyrgyzstan? But I look beyond the seductive vista, I find the people who inhabit these lands, and I see they are struggling to survive.

About the photographer
More a sociologist than a photographer Magdalena’s interest in documentary work began in 2009, when she visited Afghanistan. Since then she has focused her camera and attention on the region we broadly refer to as “The East”. For her this is everywhere east of her own country, Poland, with a specific interest in isolated communities and stories that expand on current global events.

“Sorber” composed and performed by Nils Peter Molvaer