In Search of Black Gold


For centuries coal mining has been the most important industry in Walbrzych, Poland. However, in the 1980s many of the coal mines became unprofitable. With Poland's transformation from a state-directed to a free-market economy in the 1990s, nearly all of the coal mines in Lower Silesia were shut down. Thousands of people became jobless.


The area still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country despite new industry settling in the area. It didn't take very long until the jobless miners in the area started to dig for coal on their own. 


The business is dangerous and illegal. Tunnels leading as deep as ten or fifteen meters below the ground are only protected by wood and sandbags. Inside, people dig for coal the same way they did centuries ago, by hand. Police regularly arrest illegal coal miners and confiscate their equipment, so most people dig by night to avoid police control. Not only the well-educated former miners search for 'black gold,' but also young and unexperienced jobless men risk their freedom and their lives to make a couple of Euros a night by selling illegal coal to residents.


Every year several people die after tunnels collapse. Roman Janiszek is a former coal miner, now an illegal miner who has founded a committee that is trying to make the activities legal and also to keep track of the situation in the outskirts of Walbrzych. Roman also points to the fact that people not only lost their jobs and privileges but also their social position with the closing of the mines. Once prideful coal miners, people like Roman Janiszek now work illegally every night to make a living.

Zbigniew Harasymowicz and Roman Janiszek, two illegal coal miners, are working during a day-shift in the outskirts of Walbrzych.

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For centuries coal mining has been the most important industry in Walbrzych. In the 1990s nearly all of the coal mines were shut down. Former coal miners started illegal coal mines in the outskirts, mostly working during night-shifts.

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Roman Janiszek, a former miner, now forced to dig illegally, dons his former official guild regalia. These days Roman is dressed with the uniform only once a year before the traditional celebration of Barborka, the miners' day.

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Young illegal coal miners start their late night shift in a ‘rat-hole’ mine outside of Walbrzych.
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Roman Janiszek is a former coal miner, now an illegal miner who has founded a committee that is trying to make the activities legal and also to keep track of the situation in the outskirts of Walbrzych.
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Memories of the past hanging in Roman Janiszek's apartment. Roman Janiszek used to be employed as a coal miner. He now makes a living by mining illegally.
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Illegal coal mining also leads to environmental damage.
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Zbigniew Harasymowicz, an illegal coal miner, works on the outskirts of Walbrzych.
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An abandoned entry into a tunnel of a 'rat-hole' mine.
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Roman Janiszek, a former miner and now illegal coal miner inside a mine in the outskirts of Walbrzych.
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Roman Janiszek is making his way through the narrow tunnel of an illegal coal mine.

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Tunnels leading as deep as ten or fifteen meters below the ground are only protected by wood and sandbags.

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An abandonded coal mine outside of Walbrzych.

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Roman Janiszek works late night inside one of the so-called ‘rat holes’ on the outskirts of Walbrzych.

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Roman Janiszek is holding coal he has extracted inside a 'rat-hole' mine several meters below the ground.

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Zbigniew Harasymowicz, an illegal coal miner takes a break during a day shift in the outskirts of Walbrzych.
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The remains of an abandoned former coal mine near Walbrzych.
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Instead of money, social benefits often include sacks of coal so that welfare recipients don't buy illegal coal.
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During a late-night shift on the outskirts of Walbrzych, Roman Janiszek is entering a so-called 'rat-hole' mine.
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Roman Janiszek holds a small pieces of coal next to the entrance of a tunnel leading several meters below the ground.
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Tunnels leading to coal mines are narrow and only protected by wood.

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Two young illegal coal miners are working during a late night-shift in a so-called ‘rat-hole’ mine outside of Walbrzych. Many of the young workers are inexperienced and risk their life and freedom for a few Euros.

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Roman Janiszek, a former miner and now an illegal coal miner works late night inside one of the so-called ‘rat holes’ on the outskirts of Walbrzych. The tunnel leads several meters below the ground.
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Roman Janiszek stands in front of the entrance of a newly dug 'rat-hole' in the outskirts of Walbrzych.
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After finishing their night-shift in an illegal coal mine, two young miners exit from a 'rat-hole' mine with a bag of coal.
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