Imagine earning $1.25 a day to wade through knee-deep mucky waters on a beach in Bangladesh, to dismantle enormous ships with little more than hand tools. This practice is conducted every day by Bangladeshi laborers who work as ship breakers. These vessels, many of which are cast-off single hull tankers, are dismantled in mostly unhealthy, hazardous and sometimes deadly conditions.
Toronto, Canada-based photographer Edward Burtynsky traveled to the beaches of Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2000 and 2001 to capture on film a process few have seen before. MR/EN spoke with Burtynsky, and with his cooperations presents a selection of his photographs taken on location a ship breaking facility. – By Regina P. Ciardiello, managing editor
Photographer Edward Burtynsky gains his inspiration, his drive, simply by following the unnatural progression of the world’s environment. Rather than focus on traditional beauties presented by Mother Nature, Burtynsky likes to focus on what some would consider a blight on nature, such as open pit mines, quarries and, of course, ship breaking yards. “One of my driving forces is to engage the viewer with places that have been created to propel our progress such as landscape,” Burtynsky said. “We’re disconnected from sources of our materials, as opposed to 100 years ago when we were much more closely linked to land.”
The early 1980’s brought Burtynsky to the pit mines of Vancouver, B.C.; Butte, Mont.; and Salt Lake City, Utah. It was through his photos of these copper mines that he discovered his passion for industrial landscape photography. A few years later, Burtynsky shot photos of granite quarries in Vermont and marble quarries in Italy, a series, which he says “put me on the map.” “What was intriguing to me about this series was that it demonstrated how the stone was being removed,” Burtynsky said. “It depicted a “cubed” landscape, which was interesting to look at.”
Burtynsky, who received a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, currently divides his time between Toronto Image Works – the business that he established in the late 1980’s – and his personal projects – such as his trip to the Bangladeshi ship breaking yards. With his business firmly in place, with more than 30 employees providing the visual art community with a place to produce photographs, process film and to learn more about the photography field, Burtynsky has the opportunity to research his industrial landscape photography passion.
Burtynsky’s interest in the ship breaking process was sparked by the Valdez oil spill. He was listening to a Canadian radio program that discussed the Valdez oil spill, as concerning the eventual phase-out of single hull tankers. Burtynsky thought ‘what is going to become of these single hull vessels?’ “I heard that the glut of single hull tankers had to be decommissioned; So naturally I thought where would they be taken apart?” Burtynsky said.
Fast forward to the beaches of Alang in Northern India’s Gugarat state, which reportedly holds the biggest ship breaking operation. Upon his arrival in 2000, Burtynsky soon realized that his presence was not welcome. Apparently, the facilities had recently come under fire from environmental organizations, which claimed that the pollution and working were a threat to both the environment and the workers. The Indian Government, according to Burtynsky, was therefore not allowing any media personnel, out of fear from added negative publicity. “To them (the Indian government) any member of the media or artist was considered a risk,” Burtynsky said.
Instead, he retreated back to shoot some more photos of quarries that same year, and decided to make his way to the second largest ship breaking operation – the beaches of Bangladesh. When he arrived in March 2000 on the first of two trips to these yards, Burtynsky spent two weeks – on both occasions, observing these yards, the conditions, the people and their surroundings. He discovered, via two translators, that Bangladeshi residents don’t see it unfair or unjust to be paid $1.25 for a day’s work, or to traipse through 3-ft. deep mucky waters to beach a ship during high tide. Many of the laborers are also subject to hazardous fumes and conditions that are sometimes deadly.
Many of the laborers at first were apprehensive about Burtynsky’s presence. Most thought he was a spy, investigating the ship breaking process for use in the Western World. “They (the laborers) were afraid of me at first,” Burtynsky said. “They were fearful of their jobs and thought that their process would be ‘exposed.’” They were afraid that since this technique wasn’t used in America, that we would somehow want to adapt this process, which of course is unthinkable. Western logic simply does not function there.”
On his second journey to Bangladesh in March 2001, Burtynsky often found more than 50 laborers crowded around his tripod, wanting a closer look at what he was doing. Many times, the foreman of the ship breaking yard would have to disperse the workers.
With more than 40 facilities stocked with approximately 25,000 laborers, ship breaking could be considered a “big business” in Bangladesh. While ship breaking operation owners fairly bid on vessels to bring into their yards, there have also, according to Burtynsky, been incidences of corruption within the customs agencies that allow these ships to be beached. Traditionally, a decommissioned vessel to be broken is sold from anywhere between $500,000 to one million dollars. There is also an additional fee to release the ship, plus customs taxes that the shipyard owner must pay as well – a fee, which oftentimes is adjusted to the customs officer’s liking. “When the yard owner would cut a deal with a Bangladeshi Customs Officer, he would pay a negotiable fee to release the ship,” Burtynsky said. “If the price wasn’t to the officer’s liking, then he would not release the ship.”
A Dangerous Business
Through first-hand observations, Burtynsky found both danger
and hard labor the norm of the ship breaking process. When the vessel is beached at high tide, it is slowly dismantled, piece by piece, by approximately 100 laborers who drag the equipment off the ship via heavy duty cables and winches. Large chunks of ship are reeled onto land, where the laborers load them onto trucks for transportation to re-rolling mills. These mills transform the hunks of steel into rebar, which is used in the construction industry.
Despite the health and safety risks, Bangladeshi residents continue to fill the yards – simply because they have no choice. “That’s all they have there – low wages in bad conditions,” Burtynsky said. “You basically have a country that is equal to the size of the state of Wisconsin, which is populated with more than 130 million people. The only saving grace there is that the flood plains are fertile, which makes the county a favorable source for growing crops.”
Burtynsky continued: “It’s too easy for us to say it’s wrong, but you are talking about a country that has no iron ore mines and cannot afford to import iron either,” he said. “If anything this is giving them a chance to participate in getting what they need to transfer into a more contemporary market driven economy. We often forget that while we in the Western World are so technologically advanced, they are just at the beginning of their own industrial revolution. Sure, there are things that are wrong about it (the ship breaking process), such as better parameters and dangerous conditions, but no one else is willing to take on that kind of work.”
Edward Burtynsky’s next photo series will focus on the Yangtze River Three Gorges Dam project in China. If anyone is familiar with shipping and activities in that area, as well as any other interesting photographic opportunities within the shipbuilding industry, please contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.