Ship Breakers

According to the World Fleet Monitor which covers just about every ship in the world, there are 87,483 ships plying the world's oceans.

A somewhat meaningless number I know, difficult to quantify. When confronted with such numbers my mind invariably performs a little mental acrobatic routine before settling on an imaginary visual reference. In this instance I try visualizing ships as skyscrapers, if one was to take all of these ships and stand them on their transoms in a very, very large dry dock (provided they didn't all fall down like dominos) would they start taking on the dimensions of say Manhattan, or Dubai or Shanghai, or for that matter the three of these large cities combined? At any rate this great heaving mass takes on the proportions of something a little unworldly.

Furthermore when one considers the ships which have proceeded this number it becomes self evident the transfer of energy and the resources taken to manufacture and service this fleet becomes undeniable in it’s enormity.

I recall one year while in Vietnam windsurfing, strapped in to my harness and heading at speed for an oil tanker anchored at some distance off the coast. The closer I got to the thing the more unnerved I became, until eventually, many ship lengths away I backed down and with tail between my legs let the wind carry me back to the comfort of the beach and security of my family. These things are by their nature huge.

According to the World Shipping Council the average life of a container ship is a poultry 26 years. Until quite recently most ships ended their lives by burial at sea, perhaps not such a pleasant thought. Now it is more economically feasible for the owners of ships to drive their vessels ashore during high tide on the beaches of developing countries leaving the dirty and unimaginably unsafe business of dismantling them to the low paid workers of the 3rd world. Here environmental standards and workers rights are lax, almost to the point of being virtually non- existent. Scrapping ships has taken on a value but at huge environmental and social cost.

The birth of the ship breaking industry in Bangladesh started in the early 60‘s when a Greek ship was driven ashore during a hurricane and a devastating tidal surge and could not be re-floated. The ship remained here until 1964 when The Chittagong Steel House bought the vessel and scrapped it. This process took years, but the work gave birth to the industry in Bangladesh.

Today there are nearly 140 ship breaking yards covering 18 km of beachfront just north of Chittagong. This is an industrial wasteland of epic proportions, where thousands of workers are forced to scratch their meager existence out of these hulking steel ruins, the steel salvaged from the ships accounts for half of all the steel used in Bangladesh. About one fifth of large ships of the world are dismantled here. Most of the rest of the worlds ships end their lives on the beaches of India and Pakistan.

Workers who perform this task, some 20,000 in number, are mostly men from the north of the country who’s home villages may have been flooded (economic refugees). Up until very recently boys as young a nine were employed but human rights groups managed to have this practice banned, (I did however meet some 14 and 16 year olds while here). Working with rudimentary protection at best, exposed to numerous risks such as falls, fires, explosions and poisoned by toxic fumes and exposure to asbestos and other hazardous materials most workers only last 20 or so years if they don’t suffer serious accident or death before their time. After this their bodies are often too broken to carry on, they return home instead.

The process of dismantling takes place at a huge cost to the local environment, toxic waste spills into the tidal flats, beaches foul with foreboding sludge is the norm as many of the ships being dismantled are oil tankers.

I’ve been wanting to photograph the ship breakers for many years now, ever since first seeing the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado as part of his epic series ‘Workers‘ It is Salgado’s work, methodology, commitment and expansive vision which has served as a beacon ever since discovering his work as a student of photography back in the late 80‘s.

In many ways the ship yards are synonymous with what has become the norm in recent years in regards to industrial sites and infrastructure of just about any kind. Management has become more protectionist of these compounds. Perimeter fences have become higher, security guards more heavy handed and the full weight of the law protecting those who go about their dirty business is tangible. I blame the toxic and heavy handed era of the Bush administration for this in the first instance, Chaney and his cronies altered our world immeasurably. I say this with no small measure of concern when it comes also to the recent change of guard in Australia. There is evil lurking in the shadows but for goodness sake don’t pick up the papers for enlightenment.

Prior to leaving Sydney I had been in email contact with Muhammed Ali (Shahin), a local man who runs an NGO driven by a concern to create a safer work environment for the ship breakers. In his own words Mr. Shahin has helped provide access to the breaking yards to over 100 photographers, journalists and media crews from all over the world, over many years.

What transpired over the days I was there was an exercise in patience and frustration in equal measure leading to very little of any worth. Mr, Shahin arranged for me a guide and a boat with a skipper to motor south along the coast on the first evening, he couldn’t join us for fear of being shot if recognized. Photography from any ocean craft is a failed exercise given the nature of work I shoot, which is invariably upfront and personal, or studied requiring an expansive scene with a meaningful foreground, middle distance and background. Photographs across an expanse of water provide at the most only two of these elements.

Suffice to say not much to be had on that first evening. Returning the following day with a driver and a guide and the following morning after that we tried several times to sneak past guardes on several different sites, only to be told in no uncertain terms to leave the beach. Visually I could see within 50m all I had come here to record; dozens of men prizing apart large chunks of ships with gas torches, crow bars and sledge hammers, barrels of oil being rolled by men along the oil soaked beach, large plates of metal being hauled by hand by teams of men, all this amongst a backdrop of massive and imposing beached behemoths in various states of dismantlement, scenes on an epic scale. The photographer in me was inwardly screaming to be let out while I was trying to keep my calm and find an opportunity to evade the attention of the guards. We kept being called to attention and retreated back to the workers huts for cups of sweet tea and simple food with simple conversation with young men in soiled clothing.

Eventually it all got too hard and I resigned myself to the simple fact that my visit to the breakers yards was about three years too late. Too many photographers had proceeded me, the ship breakers had already received too much world attention for the comfort of the managers. The managers along with their battalion of security guides are now in damage control.

Very little has changed for the workers and very little if anything has changed in regards to environmental protection in the ship breaking yards of Chittagong. World attention for all it’s worth has come to nothing. The men who control this business have changed only in regard to making their practices of exploitation less overt.