Photograph by Mike Hettwer
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These ship-breakers claim to be 14, the minimum legal age to work in the yards. Managers favor young workers because they are cheap and know less about the dangers, and their small bodies enable them to access a ship’s tightest corners.
Photograph by Mike Hettwer

Pictures We Love: Working to Live

At National Geographic, photography is what holds our stories together and what makes them shine. It’s what we do the best and love the most. Our photo editors work with thousands of images every year (if not every day) and so we asked each of them—editors from National Geographic MagazineNational Geographic Magazine, News, Traveler, Your Shot, and Proof—to share one picture that stood out for them in 2014. We didn’t ask them to talk about the “best” photo, but the one that resonated with them the most. Over the coming days, we’ll bring you their personal reflections and share the heart of what we’ve been up to this year.

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A coal miner climbs a shaky ladder to daylight in Meghalaya, India. A 19th-century mine in the U.S. or Europe might have looked just as hellish; mines there are safer now. But coal’s environmental costs have grown—and become global. “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” April 2014 Photograph by Robb Kendrick

When I first saw the picture I was awestruck, thinking this is what hell must look like. More than the fact Robb had climbed 400 feet down a rickety ladder into an illegal coal mine, what has stayed with me about this picture is that the man—a coal miner—must climb down and up every day, to earn a living, to make his way in the world. We take for granted the first-world benefits and convenience that cheap energy has brought to our lives. But for this man to have energy, and heat, and money to survive he must enter this dangerous and dark abyss each day and hope the walls or rickety ladder don’t collapse on him so he can go home at day’s end, to return once again.

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These ship-breakers claim to be 14, the minimum legal age to work in the yards. Managers favor young workers because they are cheap and know less about the dangers, and their small bodies enable them to access a ship’s tightest corners. “The Ship-Breakers,” May 2014 Photograph by Mike Hettwer

I can’t stop looking into their eyes. One by one, I stare. They seem older and wiser like the men they work alongside. Their youth is all but gone. Gazing into their eyes takes me deep into their souls. What have they seen? What do they dream? What does their future hold?

This photograph was captured by photographer Mike Hettwer while documenting the 80 active shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh. The boys were taking a break from work in a teahouse. The photograph ran in National Geographic’s May issue.

As our caption stated, the boys all claimed to be 14, the minimum age to work in the shipbreaking yards. Managers favor young workers because they cost less and are less knowledgeable about the dangers. Their small bodies enable them to access the ship’s tightest spaces where they use torches to cut the ships apart. It is extremely dangerous work with little or no safety training or equipment. Most child laborers in Bangladesh work to support their families.

I remember when I was 14. I was working a paper route for spending money, running on the cross country team, and trying to excel in the classroom—such a sheltered life so far from the hard lives of these boys on the Bay of Bengal. I thank Hettwer, who did this project on his own and brought it to the world through the pages of our magazine.

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Browse more of our favorite images from 2014 in these related “Pictures We Love” posts: