Tom Hegen makes portraits of the Anthropocene, this current age in which the dominant influence on Earth is human activity. His work often requires observing from above: leaning out of helicopters, operating drones. Taken from these heights, Hegen’s series of images show the broad effects of receding glaciers, exploited farmland, polluted quarries—and coal mines in Germany, Hegen’s homeland.
Some mines are still operating; others, spent and shut down. The lignite coal here is almost always buried, requiring industrial excavation that can foul ecosystems and waterways. The coal yields cheap electricity, but at a high cost in scarred land. Though the scars are upsetting, Hegen says, he gives the portraits an abstract beauty in the hope that people will look at them—and consider the ecological issues they present.
These photographs are of Germany; extraction mining of fossil fuels and minerals creates similar scenes elsewhere. There are signs of change, however. The German government says it will end coal mining and close coal-fueled power plants by 2038.
This story appears in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.