Student Work: Olga Sokal

Black Stone Burns

Olga Sokal

Repeated throughout coal’s history, is the devastating tableau of towns it leaves struggling in its wake. When all the precious black stones have been extracted from the ground, and all the hard labor extracted from the local community, what it leaves behind is more than the sum of the scars on the land.

Often mistaken for a dirty fuel of the past, its extraction and use are again on the rise. According to the International Energy Agency 2021 report, coal accounted for over 40% of the overall growth in global CO2 emissions in 2021(IEA, March 2022). And with 432 new coal mines already planned globally (Global Energy Monitor, 2021) it seems that there is no limit to the smog of emissions threatening to smother our planet.

Black Stone Burns utilizes four different visual narratives to weave together the complex stories of the people and communities whose lives have been inextricably shaped and molded by coal. Made over four years, three continents and five countries, it starts in my hometown of Belchatow in Poland. With intimate family stories and pictures, it incorporates images made by former and current workers of the Belchatow coal plant, the largest of its kind in Europe. The project then traverses across the Atlantic ocean to the lost american dreams of Appalachian coal mining towns in the USA. Where images of fabricated dioramas are coupled with the stark reality of rampant extractivist capitalism.

The advertising strategies used for the continued promotion of coal are investigated through an analysis of the UK’s history with the black stone. Archival advertisements are juxtaposed with the current commercials that intend to greenwash the UK’s fraught history with coal and poverty from its citizen's minds. The project here raises into question the similarities within the tangled web of neoliberalism, coal, capitalism, and the role photography plays within them itself.

Finally, the visual narrative turns to vast coal mines of China and the environmental degradation caused by such large scale extraction. A repetitive and degrading visual strategy is used here to emphasize photography’s inextricable links to extractivist modes of capitalism and labor.

“each photograph also carries residual traces of the labor of the miner, the refiner, the chemist and the developer... the photographer's physical existence is a function of resource extraction and of the relationship between labor and capital”(Angus, 2021).

The visual strategies which have been directly used by capitalism to sell, expand and accumulate wealth through its willingness to exploit and commodify the natural world, are used throughout Black Stone Burns to question not only the coal industry but the role of image making itself.


Coleman, K. and James, D., 2021. Capitalism and the Camera. New York: Verso Books. 2022. [online] Available at: <>

IEA. 2022. Global CO2 emissions rebounded to their highest level in history in 2021 - News - IEA. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2022].