‘Ostrava – Hooked on Steel’ is a series of images about the people of Ostrava in the Czech Republic and their dependency on one of Europe’s largest steel plants.
For over two hundred years, steel production has been key to life in Ostrava. In the last two decades the city 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 the multinational company, ArcelorMittal.
The ArcelorMittal steel plant covers an area 10 km2 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 them 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, come to 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 an adult and with these pictures have attempted to capture a sense of people’s vulnerability at such a precarious moment in their country’s history.
Grateful thanks to the following people 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