Documentary Photographer João Coelho is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘The Iron Quest – The Titanic Gang’. To see João’s body of work, click on any image.
The section of ship graveyard where the oldest wrecks lie, now mere rusty skeletons that are hardly reminiscent of the ships that proudly sailed the oceans in the past, is known by the locals as Titanic Beach in Luanda, Angola. The group of young men who work here, using only their hands, arm strength and courage to pull large pieces of iron out of the water to sell by weight, quickly became known as the Titanic gang.
The gang arrives at the beach early, with the sun still peeking over the horizon. They have to take advantage of the low tide, which leaves the wreckage more exposed and allows them to reach it by walking along the muddy bottom of the bay. Perched on top of their motorcycles, they stop at the place where they usually leave their work equipment hidden under the beach’s undergrowth and the garbage that the tides deposit every day. Tattered pants, thick socks and a pair of old sneakers are all they have to protect themselves from cuts on the edges of rusty irons. The more experienced ones, the “professionals” as they like to be called, proudly wear a pair of gloves, although they are already torn on the fingers and worn out by the sea water. Despite trying to protect themselves, they have all dealt with wounds that took months to heal. Some have lost fingers, cut off while working or amputated because the wounds gangrened. The lack of adequate medical care and the continuous exposure to the polluted water of the bay prolong the time of the infections, which can spread to other parts of the body.
While the groups of older, more organized men work with blowtorches to cut the iron plates, the Titanic gang has to improvise. They dive endlessly, blindly groping the bottom of the bay with their hands, trying to find pieces of iron corroded by rust that have come off the hulls of the ships. It’s impossible to see anything underwater; the slow agony of the iron giants has released sediments and oils that have turned the waters of the bay dark and pasty.
The gang knows the wreckage on the surface like the back of their hands, but the bottom of the bay is still an unknown world to them. They’ve already salvaged everything there is to take from the nearest parts of the beach, but now they have to venture further and further out, where the waves crash violently against the wreckage and create dangerous currents. Others explore the deepest recesses of the wreck where no one has yet ventured, passing through holes where they barely fit and which quickly submerge at high tide, potentially leaving them trapped in the ships’ closed compartments. The need to find unexplored areas fuels courage and daring.
When they come across a heavy part or one that needs to be detached from the hull using force, they get together in a team in which everyone seems to know their role. Sometimes they use steel cables or old ropes that they also salvage from the wreckage, but what counts in the end is the strength and experience acquired over years of working in the bowels of these sleeping monsters.
Copper and bronze are the equivalent of gold in this bizarre aquatic mine. While iron is paid for at around 120 dollars a ton, a kilogram of copper yields 3.5 dollars and bronze around 2 dollars a kilogram. Unfortunately, copper and bronze are already in short supply, so the gang has to be happy with iron mined with rust that takes away much of its original weight.
After finding loose parts or detaching boards from the wreckage in fights that can take hours, they still have to overcome the hundreds of meters that separate them from the beach. Sometimes the effort is all done underwater because the tide fills up quickly and the waves and currents pull them out to sea.
Often, after an intense struggle to reach the beach with the heavy pieces of iron, they throw themselves on the sand exhausted and shivering with cold. But they can’t afford to lie down for long, even though their bodies are begging for rest.
Reaching the beach with the heavy pieces after battling the waves and the shallows littered with sharp irons and pieces of metal is not the last effort. Despite being exhausted, the men still have to put the day’s booty on the back of the motorcycles. It’s the last test of strength and endurance before they leave the beach.
Perched on top of the iron plates, they take the motorcycles to another part of the beach about 2 km from where they work, where the iron is weighed, and they finally get the money they’ve been waiting for. However, the reward for an intense and exhausting day’s work, in which they have taken many risks, is meager. On average, a day’s work on the Titanic beach earns the gang around 300 to 500 kilos of iron, which means distributing around 60 dollars to everyone. That’s why there’s always a tomorrow for the Titanic gang, until there are no more iron skeletons in the bay.
All images and text © João Coelho
By João Coelho
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