Dan Wilton’s new photography series brings light to the shocking coal consumption around Europe
With an academic background in environmental biology and a long history with photography, Dan Wilton is perfectly equipped to tackle the climate crisis with charity ClientEarth.
- Joey Levenson
- 10 March 2022
One look at the work of London-based photographer Dan Wilton and it’s easy to guess the artist has a long and meaningful relationship with the craft. His photos light up with a vibrant humanity, illuminating the lives of the people of our planet. Today the artist launches an exhibition of his latest project The Very Fire They Sit Beside at the Huxley Parlour Gallery. With all the proceeds of print sales going towards environmental charity ClientEarth, the series is an encapsulation of Dan’s canny ability to bring the urgency of climate change activism into an artistic canon. “I originally trained as an environmental biologist before I stumbled across the black-and-white darkroom in university, way back when,” Dan tells It’s Nice That on his beginnings in environmental practice. “My career has always been shaped by my personal projects over the years,” he adds. “This is a departure from my usual work - and the first time I’ve collaborated with a charity and approached a political/environmental issue.” After having met ClientEarth back in 2018 for a magazine shoot, Dan found the charity to resonate deeply with his own interests and moral code. It was essentially a match made in heaven, which led the pairing to this project. “I’d been looking for the right charity to work with for a while and they basically just fell into my lap,” he says. “I can’t speak highly enough of the work they do and the way they go about it: they use the legal system to fight for environmental causes, they have a real gamesmanship to them.”
Whilst The Very Fire They Sit Beside is undeniably awash with pretty colour palettes and a soft dreamy texture, the message of the series hits a much harder and grittier reality. Centred around Germany’s energy consumption through excessive coal usage (including lignite mines and the like), The Very Fire They Sit Beside shows the stark reality of living with fossil fuels and non-renewable resources. “I was keen from the outset to use a different visual palette to the norm that is used when approaching fossil fuels and the climate crisis,” Dan says. “I think at this point people have seen so many grey, monotonic, dark brooding images of massive stacks belching smoke that we’ve become numb to them.” Instead, Dan opts for something quieter, broadening the aesthetic patterns of traditional photojournalism. “I wanted to attempt to make stiller images, using a softer visual language that tells the story but without overtly shouting it.”
With so many of the lignite mines inaccessible and across flat landscapes, Dan thought it best to shoot some of the series on a drone. “It seemed to make sense... to capture the enormous inhuman scale of some of the lignite mines,” he explains. “It led to some fairly stressful moments, like launching the drone whilst hiding in bushes from security or talking my way out of being arrested by German police for flying over the Garzweiler mine during the Ende Galenda protests.” The series covers nine countries in total, some in part led by ClientEarth’s involvement in cases. “I sparked up a working friendship with artist Joanie Lemercier whilst shooting around Hambach and Garzweiler,” Dan adds. “He was shooting a lot of moving images by drone and making large scale video projections into the mine and against the deconsecrated church at the demolished village of Manheim to protest against RWE’s actions and to support Ende Gelände.”
Two particular images which stand out in particular are the captures of the power plant at Sines and the protesters running through the Garzweiler mine. The Sines image illuminates the current coal situation in Europe, and how Portugal made a transition into a coal-free country. “At the time, Sines was one of the top 30 worst polluting plants in Europe, yet whilst researching the project I could see people lying on the beach beside and swimming in the sea next to the outflows from the plants, on satellite images,” Dan explains. “As soon as I saw that, I knew I had to try to photograph it.” As for the protesters at Garzweiler, “they played a grand game of cat and mouse with the German police and mine security as they tried to blockade the mines and plants,” Dan recalls. “To witness thousands of young people protesting, breaking through police lines, storming the mine and blocking train lines to shut the plants and force mining to stop, all in the face of a very heavy-handed police response, was genuinely moving.”
But, Dan hopes this project goes beyond highlighting the past and present. He wants it to inspire a future. “I want this project to highlight the work that still needs to be done in Europe to move beyond coal and also to highlight that it’s not just a simple black-and-white issue,” he says. “We can’t just close all the coal infrastructure and replace it with renewables in the same area to replace the jobs that will be lost in one fell swoop. It’s not that simple.” It’s what Dan describes as a “bittersweet” situation, since “so much has changed” since he shot it. “The project is as yet unfinished, I had planned to shoot a lot more in Poland, especially around Bełchatów but the pandemic put an end to those plans,” he explains. “I hope to continue working with ClientEarth, so perhaps we’ll continue work on this project or approach a different environmental issue.”
GalleryDan Wilton: The Very Fire They Sit Beside (Copyright © Dan Wilton, 2022)
Dan Wilton: The Very Fire They Sit Beside (Copyright © Dan Wilton, 2022)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.