Most of us are used to the notion of work as a place we go to. A place we spend a fixed amount of time, some of it – working. Hours safely under our belts, on a time-card and erased from our lives we get out and start, well, living. Imagine now being not at work, but inside it. Imagine breathing it, tasting it in your mouth, having it cover your skin and burning your eyes. Imagine being surrounded by your work day and night, imagine rolling in your bed and bumping your head hard against it. Imagine your whole immediate landscape made of it. Your garden. Imagine your children living inside it with you. Imagine them playing with it instead of toys.

For the brick kiln workers in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal, this is the daily reality. Bricks and dust. Houses made of stacked up bricks, the very houses surrounded by more bricks—wet bricks, dry bricks, fired bricks, broken bricks. Bricks fencing off one neighbour from another. Bricks lined in patterns. Stacks of bricks on their backs and stacked high on top of their heads. Bricks as toys in the hands of their children. In between, around and on the bricks – fine dust. Covering their clothes, faces, gritting between their teeth, watering their eyes, garnishing their daily dal bhat (traditional Nepalese rice meal).

I photographed the brick kiln workers on the last day of my second visit to Nepal. I arrived there looking for a project to shoot, to create a purpose in my own life. The year prior, I spent travelling in South East Asia and then in Nepal. I fell in love with the country and vowed to return. The return happened earlier than I expected and I found myself rather unprepared for it. I was broke, jobless and the initial honey-moon romance with the country was long gone. Reality hit me hard. I even ended up spending a night in Nepali police custody for a motorbike accident (which is a story on its own). I was lost, confused and, at times, very much depressed.

Shooting the brick kiln was like taking an elevator down deep underground. And yet, it lifted me up and out of my gloom. I watched the indefatigable women carrying twenty-eight bricks—that’s 70 kgs!—on their backs, cooking meals, washing the pots and plates in a nearby dirty trickle of a stream. Up close, I looked at the penetrating, dust-covered faces of the children.

Later on, looking at the photos on my laptop screen, I pondered the eternal question that kept many a painter and photographer awake at night: what is it that makes a face? How is it that the faces of these children speak more about life, radiate more inner strength and wisdom than those of an average elderly middle-class white citizen from the “first” world? Could it be that by making our lives comfortable and secure we make them dull and predictable? As in Oscar Wilder’s ‘Dorian Gray’, I believe the ultimate goal in life is to make your own face. When it’s time to call it a game I want to have the last good look at my face and see life written all over it. Engraved in wrinkles, scars, sagging skin, missing teeth and grey hair. All signs that I’d lived. The adults and the children in the brick kiln seem to have achieved this already. But, at what cost?

Cost is rather complicated to calculate. Whereas price is not. An average worker in this kiln makes 1,000 rupees per week (around 10 US dollars). Irrespective of the distance, for (un)loading 1,000 bricks, workers receive $2.5. A single, unfired brick weighs 2.5 kg, after firing – 1.45 kg. That’s $2.5 for 1450–2,500 kgs carried on human shoulders. More often than not workers are female.

The kiln employs workers from the underprivileged Gandharba caste. Every caste in Nepal usually has a corresponding trade – shopkeepers, fighters, priests, etc. Gandharbas were the travelling musicians and carriers of gossip and news. Due to recent changes in modern Nepalese society, the demand for traditional Gandharba services is low. Some make ends meet by playing their traditional Sarangi instruments on the streets of Thamel, the tourist quarter of Kathmandu. Others are forced to look for alternative ways to survive, such as working in brick kilns or other low-paid jobs.

Out of around 250 Gandharba people working in the brick kiln – around 40 – are children. The youngest employee on the payroll is 12 – five years younger than the legal requirement. In total, the brick kiln industry employs 28,000 children across Nepal.

Needless to say, the workers suffer from various work-related health problems. Respiratory issues, headaches, problems with their eyes. Only the supervisors wear cloth masks. After spending only a few hours shooting, my own camera had to be taken in for cleaning and servicing. Some workers spend up to 7 seasons working and living in these conditions.

With the Kathmandu valley population growing at 4% annual rate—one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in South Asia—construction is the third largest sector of the economy. The workers are attracted and subsequently trapped with a system of financial incentives – helping their families survive the monsoon months. The system ensures that the same workers are coming back to work season-in-season-out. The result is modern day slavery which has already earned itself a chilling name – blood bricks.

Following the devastation of the 25th of April, 2015 earthquake that flattened many brick and mortar buildings, Nepal needs to find a more sustainable way to meet the growing demand for housing in the rapidly urbanizing areas. Increased international pressure could act as the much needed catalyst for change.