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The Iron Quest

Luanda, Angola

by João Coelho

Published February 2024

About 30 km (18.5 miles) north of the Angolan capital of Luanda, dozens of iron skeletons lie in the shallows of Santiago Beach that stretches for more than two kilometers on the South Atlantic Ocean. It's a ship graveyard. But there is life on this beach. Every morning, a group of young people come to work here, salvaging pieces of iron from the carcasses of half-buried ships. They have to dive into the dark waters of the sediment and oil that leaks from the corroded hulls and they have no tools or boats to help them remove the heavy pieces and transport them to the beach. They depend solely on their own hands, the strength of their arms and their camaraderie and mutual help. At the end of an exhausting day's work, they divide the profits from the sale of the iron among themselves. The only certainties these young people have in life are that the smelting companies will pay them a miserable 120 dollars a ton and that the next day they will have to return to this beach so they can feed their families.


João Coelho 


João Coelho is a self-taught documentary photographer based in Angola, where he was born and lived until he was 11, and to where he returned about 15 years ago to work on social development projects.


The daily contact with the lives of people struggling to survive sparked in him a keen interest in studying the human condition and an enormous willingness to tell these people's stories. This began to take shape and materialize in documentary photography projects about five years ago, with an emphasis on communities living and working in precarious conditions and groups marginalized by society.


In addition to an intention to provoke emotions and sentiments in his audience, his work has a strong humanist stamp and is not limited to mere documentary illustration, as it invariably has underlying messages with a strong social critique.


Attentive to and concerned about the injustices, inequalities and asymmetries that he experiences up close, he believes that photography has the power to transform. That's why he increasingly sees his work as a real mission, assuming responsibility and a strong commitment to seeking ways to give back to the communities and people whose stories he tells.


The several awards he has been winning at renowned international contests in documentary and photojournalism categories are a means of getting his messages across to a wider audience and to arouse awareness and a willingness to change. Among his awards include in 2023 he was elected Amateur Photographer of the Year by the 18th Spider Awards; Photographer of the Year at the European Photography Awards; International Discovery of the Year by the reFocus Awards World Photo Annual; Winner and Discovery of The Year by the Monochrome Awards; and Winner of the Year at the New York Photography Awards.


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