Tag Archives: poverty

Urban Drought: Mexico City’s Water Crisis

Iztapalapa is Mexico City's most populous borough, home to roughly 2 million people. It is also one of the most water starved.

Iztapalapa is Mexico City’s most populous borough, home to roughly 2 million people. It is also one of the most water starved.

Since leaving Cambodia to base myself in Mexico City last spring, I have been asked the same two questions repeatedly — why Mexico, and what are you working on there? Conveniently, the answers to both are more or less the same: water. Of course there are many other reasons for changing continents, and I am doing a variety of non-water related photojournalism and videography, but my primary focus for the last six months has been on the city’s water starved low income neighbourhoods.

Mexico City is the second largest city in the world with an estimated metropolitan population of 24 million people.

Mexico City is the second largest city in the world with an estimated metropolitan population of 24 million people.

The second largest city in the world, no one is exactly sure exactly how many people actually live in Mexico City, but a good guess for the greater metropolitan area is somewhere around 24 million. Only Tokyo is home to more, and its high-tech, hyper-efficient organization makes it an entirely different experience to the functional chaos of Mexico City. With such a staggering population and its under-funded and aging infrastructure, it is in some ways unsurprising that the city is running out of water. Al Jazeera, quoting author Jose Estiban Castro, reported that the city’s water usage average per capita is around 300 litres per day, which is around double what many European cities use (but less still than the American average), and when multiplied across the tens of millions of citizens the total quantity of water needed every day is mind boggling. With this figure in mind it is actually quite impressive that they are able come close to meeting their water needs, especially considering that a devastating earthquake in 1985 caused extensive damage to the underground water infrastructure — much of which still hasn’t been fully repaired.

In fact, if you were to pay a visit to Mexico City and head to some of the trendier colonias, defined by coffee shops, bars, and beautiful parks, you might not notice that there was a water shortage at all. It is only when you venture into some of the sprawling low income suburbs that encircle the city that you realize just how scarce water can be for working class chilangos, as residents of the capital are referred to in the rest of the country.

A pipa drives through the extreme outer edges of Iztapalapa, areas that are water starved as well as possessing high crime rates.

A pipa drives through the extreme outer edges of Iztapalapa, areas that are water starved as well as possessing high crime rates.

Iztapalapa, the city’s most populous borough, is such a place. Home to nearly 2 million and possessing a reputation for high crime rates, Iztapalapa is a different beast than the downtown core that helped earn Mexico City the top spot on The New York Times’ list of cities to visit in 2016. During one visit to the extreme edge of the borough, I was warned by a man I was interviewing not to enter certain vacant buildings because there were often gang-related kidnap victims held inside. In many such neighbourhoods, to have running household water is considered a luxury. In the community of Mixcoatl, for example, the only thing that comes out of the taps with any regularity is a kind of empty gurgling sound. Residents consider themselves lucky if it is followed by actual water more than a few times per month.

Police officers armed with assault rifles man a checkpoint in Iztapalapa, one of Mexico City's poorest neighbourhoods, and one that suffers from chronic water shortages.

Police officers armed with assault rifles man a checkpoint in Iztapalapa, one of Mexico City’s poorest neighbourhoods, and one that suffers from chronic water shortages.

A guard dog protects a scrap yard on the outer edges of Iztapalapa.

A guard dog protects a scrap yard on the outer edges of Iztapalapa.

The first time I went to Iztapalapa it was on the roof of a government water tanker, known as a pipa. From my high vantage point I watched as people ran out of their houses at the sound of the truck’s roaring engine. The pipa would then reverse as close as possible to the person’s house and a crew member would drag a heavy rubber hose inside to fill up whatever kind of vessels they had. More prosperous residents (or those lucky enough to have skilled construction workers in the family) built high capacity underground cisterns to store the delivered water in. When coupled with a small electric pump, these cisterns allow people to have functioning taps in their kitchens, giving the illusion of a functioning public water service.

Waiting for pipas to arrive is a daily occurrence for residents of parts of Iztapalapa.

Waiting for pipas to arrive is a daily occurrence for residents Mixcoatl, a neighbourhood in Iztapalapa.

A man delivers garrafones (large jugs of purified water) in Iztapalapa. Mexico is the highest consumer of bottled water per capita in the world as neither the tap water or the water delivered in tanker is fit for drinking.

A man delivers garrafones (large jugs of purified water) in Iztapalapa. Mexico is the highest consumer of bottled water per capita in the world as neither the tap water or the water delivered in tanker is fit for drinking.

Women in Ecatapec wait to see if government water delivery trucks will enter their neighbourhood. With just three funcitoning trucks for more than 30 000 people, it is sometimes days or weeks between resupply of certain neighbourhoods.

Women in Ecatapec wait to see if government water delivery trucks will enter their neighbourhood. With just three functioning trucks for more than 30 000 people, it is sometimes days or weeks between resupply of certain neighbourhoods.

Those without cisterns relied on a hodgepodge collection of plastic barrels and buckets. Once I even saw someone using a baby’s bathtub as a container of last resort, so desperate were they to make sure they secured every drop of water possible. When I asked why they didn’t just fill up the biggest containers they had and then flag down another truck when they were empty, I was told it might be as much as three weeks before another pipa passed. A family of four, even if each person was using just half of the citywide average, would need more than 4000 litres of water per week. Looking at the size of the vessels some of the people were using, it was clear that they were not even close to being able to store weeks worth of water at, even at one quarter the normal rations.

A mother holds her son back in front of their Iztapalapa home after having an argument with a governement water delivery truck over the infrequency of their visits.

A mother holds her son back in front of their Iztapalapa home after having an argument with a governement water delivery truck over the infrequency of their visits.

A woman hoists a water pipe from a governement tanker onto the roof of her home in Iztapalapa where her family's water storage tanks are located.

A woman hoists a water pipe from a governement tanker onto the roof of her home in Iztapalapa where her family’s water storage tanks are located.

One woman I spoke to told me that she hadn’t been able to do a load of laundry for almost a month because her cistern was dry. Bucket showers had to be taken sparingly and the bather often had to stand inside a plastic tub so that the water could be saved and used to either flush the toilet or wash the floor. Dishes were piled high in many homes until a sufficient quantity had built up to justify filling the sink.

Women in Iztapalapa survey the amount of water that has been delivered to their home, after having used every empty vessel available. It is not uncommon for weeks to pass between water resupply.

Women in Iztapalapa survey the amount of water that has been delivered to their home, after having used every empty vessel available. It is not uncommon for weeks to pass between water resupply.

Two brothers clean their their family toilet using as little water as possible. With days or even weeks passing between water resupply, no water can be wasted.

Two brothers clean their their family toilet using as little water as possible. With days or even weeks passing between water resupply, no water can be wasted.

A woman holds a bucket to catch the water from her kitchen sink so that it can be reused to wash the floor. With extreme water shortages in certain neighbourhoods, careful recycling is needed to meet daily needs.

A woman holds a bucket to catch the water from her kitchen sink so that it can be reused to wash the floor. With extreme water shortages in certain neighbourhoods, careful recycling is needed to meet daily needs.

The problem was not limited to Iztapalapa, nor just to Mexico City for that matter. In the Ecatepec, a 30 minute drive out of the city into Mexico State, I met Yolonda Carillo, who told me that at one point she had gotten so desperate for water that she and her neighbours had essentially kidnapped a pipa crew after being told they would not be receiving a delivery that day. They then called the supervisor at the water depot and demanded that another pipa be dispatched to them or they would not let the crew leave. A stout, motherly woman who fed me tacos and homemade guacamole me after having spoken to me for less than an hour, she was not what I thought a kidnapper would look like. But as she said, water is life, and the lack of it makes people unpredictable.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatapec, waiting for government water delivery trucks.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatapec, waiting for government water delivery trucks.

Yolonda Carillo stands outside her home on the edge of Ecatepec, 30 minutes outside Mexico City. Like Iztapalapa, parts of Ecatepec suffer from extreme water shortages.

Yolonda Carillo stands outside her home on the edge of Ecatepec, 30 minutes outside Mexico City. Like Iztapalapa, parts of Ecatepec suffer from extreme water shortages.

An elderly woman in Ecatapec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

An elderly woman in Ecatapec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

I realized these shortages affected nearly every aspect of people’s lives, and provided a frightening example of what an increasingly waterless future could look like. Mexico City has already depleted the vast majority of its underground aquifers and has to pipe most its water from river and lake systems, some of which are hundreds of kilometres away. The fact that the city is located on top of a 2,200 meter plateau makes the process of pumping water from so far away an engineering marvel in itself. But with roughly 40% of this water being wasted due to leakages in the pipes, the city’s high usage rates, and the unfortunate reality that the needs of poor citizens are a lower priority than those of the rich, the current system is a temporary fix, not a long term solution.

Women watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Icatapec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City's water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Women watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Icatapec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City’s water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Ecatapec residents wait for their family's barrels to be filled, and then sign a waiver to indicate how much they have received. Though the water is supposed to be free of charge, residents are often required to pay a mandatory 'tip' for the tanker crew or face the possibility that the trucks will not return the following week.

Ecatapec residents wait for their family’s barrels to be filled, and then sign a waiver to indicate how much they have received. Though the water is supposed to be free of charge, residents are often required to pay a mandatory ‘tip’ for the tanker crew or face the possibility that the trucks will not return the following week.

A man pays 20 pesos ($1 US) to the water delivery crew as a "tip", though according to government policy, the water should be free.

A man pays 20 pesos ($1 US) to the water delivery crew as a “tip”, though according to government policy, the water should be free.

As the world continues to urbanize at an irreversible pace and as freshwater supplies dwindle globally, the looming danger for the world’s megacities can be seen in Mexico. This is only an overview of the situation and it is far from complete. It represents just the beginning of what will be a three year investigation into water, which, when finished, will include photography, short videos, and essays. The more time I spend in these communities, the more I am coming to realize how terrible it is to live in an urban environment without water. Yet when I’m done I hope to provide insights into possible solutions to this problem, and not only draw attention to the problem itself.

The future of humanity is in our cities, but as I have learned in Mexico City, without water urban life is untenable.

A community greenhouse in Ecatapec died after government water trucks did not visit the community for over a week.

A community greenhouse in Ecatapec died after government water trucks did not visit the community for over a week.

If anyone knows of innovative urban water programs or solution based initiatives, please feel free to contact me at luc@lucforsyth.com.

Posted in Blog, Environmental, Mexico, Water Also tagged , , , , |

Gapminder: A Fact-Based World View Everyone Can Understand

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run down and half-ruined apartment with no running water.

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run-down and half-ruined apartment with no running water in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Taking a break from political coverage, I’ve spent the last two weeks working on a series of nine assignments for Gapminder – a non-profit organization based in Sweden. Gapminder is a unique organization in the sense that their approach to development is not focused on field operations, but rather on gathering detailed information on global inequalities in wealth  – and presenting it in visually interesting and educational ways to encourage a better understanding of poverty around the world.

When Gapminder first reached out to me about working together, I have to say I initially found their project specifications unusual. Unlike a typical development-oriented job, the focus of these assignments is not on people, but on the objects they own. In fact, other than a single family portrait of each of the nine families, there are no human elements in the images whatsoever (In the material I submitted that is. These photos are just a behind the scenes look at the locations visited, not the finished product). For someone like me, whose work is almost exclusively focused on people, the idea was surprising.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family's income.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family’s income.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.

 

I was given a list of nine different types of households to find – some rural, some urban, some suburban – and a detailed shot list of items to be documented. But apart from these loose guidelines, Gapminder gave me total freedom in terms of people and locations – a rare and welcome opportunity. As long as the households in question met a few basic criteria, I was free to focus on anyone I wanted, anywhere in the country.

If I am being honest I should say that after finishing the first of these projects in Phnom Penh, I didn’t really see the utility of these images. Photos of doors and brooms and plates of food aren’t things that I normally would think of as telling stories about people. But after doing several more (I’ve completed six of the nine), the beauty and simplicity of the idea has become obvious. By comparing these everyday items across a variety of socio-economic contexts, a much larger portrait of poverty emerges. Whereas a single photo of someone’s kitchen may not tell a strong story, viewing six side-by-side (or, even more impressively, the hundreds that Gapminder is collecting from countries around the world) is decidedly more powerful. From these comparisons, inanimate objects paint a vivid portrait of life and hardship in a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the global poverty line.

My experience with the Gapminder project has been more informative than I could ever have imagined. Even though I have worked extensively in developing regions and much of my work focuses on impoverished areas, these last few weeks have given me a more personal and intimate understanding of both Cambodia, and the effects poverty has on household life. I’m glad to be a part of Gapminder’s mission to “fight ignorance with a fact-based world view everyone can understand,” and I’m looking forward to the assignments to come.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A young boy eats lunch outside their home in Phnom Penh.

A young boy eats lunch outside his home in Phnom Penh.

 

Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors - creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors – creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

*Note: These are not the photos for the official Gapminder project.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, NGO Work Also tagged , , , , , , |

Raphael’s Story

I met Raphael through a friend, living in the market district of Divisoria, Manila. Four months ago he fell down the stairs of his squatter apartment while drunk and cracked his spine. Unable to afford medical treatment he can only lay on his back in the small bedroom while his brother helps him as best he can. He urinates into small plastic containers and is unable to stand long enough to shower or bathe. Since he can’t pay for a trip to the hospital he has no way of knowing when or if his injuries will heal.

Raphael lies in the sweltering heat of his small room, using plastic containers for urinating. He has already been laying in this position for four months and recovery seems a long way off – if ever.

Pain killers have been donated, as his family cannot afford to buy medicine. He and his brothers repaired an old radio to give him some form of entertainment.

Raphael’s brother takes care of him as best he can. Since Raphael cannot work, his family sacrifices to help him.

The house is simple and small, approximately ten square meters for three people.

Raphael does workouts using a broom handle to try and regain mobility in his legs.

Raphael is patient and hopeful, but extremely frustrated by his situation.

Raphael reads the bible daily, drawing inspiration and hope.

Posted in Blog, Philippines Also tagged , , , |

Leo’s House: Escaping Poverty in the Philippines

Leo Castellero is a 49-year-old carpenter from Mindanao Island in the Philippines. When his wife left him for another man, he moved to Manila with his five children looking to start a new life.

Initially he found work on one of the cities large construction sites, but when the project ended he was unable to find a new job. Very quickly the savings he had were used up to feed his family, and within a few weeks he was broke. Several months later his criminal and medical clearance certificates expired. These have to be renewed on a yearly basis in order to be legally employed in the Philippines, and he could not afford the $30 fee.

Two years later, Leo is living in a 6 square meter shack along the train tracks near the Osmena highway in Manila. He has been unemployed since 2010 and is only able to feed his children through the charity of the community.

Made possible with the support of a few private donors, this story documents Leo’s life as he tries to break out of the poverty cycle – a hopeless feat for someone without financial backing.

Leo Castallero, 49, is a carpenter who lost his job and his wife in 2010. He moved to Manila with his five children in the same year.

Leo Castallero, 49, is a carpenter who lost his job and his wife in 2010. He moved to Manila with his five children in the same year.

Leo’s house in perched on the side of a government tenement block in San Andres, Manila. Directly underneath is the power station for the building; when it rains, Leo and his children cannot touch the walls of their house or they receive a strong electric shock.

Leo’s house in perched on the side of a government tenement block in San Andres, Manila. Directly underneath is the power station for the building; when it rains, Leo and his children cannot touch the walls of their house or they receive a strong electric shock.

Leo sits with three of his five children in their house near the Osmena highway in Manila. The youngest child is 3 and the oldest is 17.

Leo sits with three of his five children in their house near the Osmena highway in Manila. The youngest child is 3 and the oldest is 17.

Leo holds a photograph of his commando unit in the Filipino army. His time as a soldier was the most secure point in his life, since the government had provided everything he needed to survive.

Leo holds a photograph of his commando unit in the Filipino army. His time as a soldier was the most secure point in his life, since the government had provided everything he needed to survive.

Leo’s daughter Angelica, 5, plays with some found toys in their shack above the train tracks.

Leo’s daughter Angelica, 5, plays with some found toys in their shack above the train tracks.

The toothbrushes of Leo’s children. The financial burden of supporting five underage children means that Leo’s savings were immediately spent on food when he lost his job.

The toothbrushes of Leo’s children. The financial burden of supporting five underage children means that Leo’s savings were immediately spent on food when he lost his job.

Leo’s youngest son, 3, watches as a commuter train speeds past their house. The trains pass roughly every 15 minutes.

Leo’s youngest son, 3, watches as a commuter train speeds past their house. The trains pass roughly every 15 minutes.

The secondary entrance to Leo’s house leads to a stairwell of the government housing project on the side of which he built his house. The dark space is where the building’s electrical power station is situated and the children must brush against it each time they use this entrance.

The secondary entrance to Leo’s house leads to a stairwell of the government housing project on the side of which he built his house. The dark space is where the building’s electrical power station is situated and the children must brush against it each time they use this entrance.

Leo’s house is roughly 6 square meters and sleeps six people.

Leo’s house is roughly 6 square meters and sleeps six people.

The walls and ceiling of Leo’s house are waterlogged and moldy. Though an experienced carpenter, he lacks the appropriate materials to build a proper house. When it rains the water drips from the ceiling, meaning that Leo and his children must sleep sitting up to avoid the water.

The walls and ceiling of Leo’s house are waterlogged and moldy. Though an experienced carpenter, he lacks the appropriate materials to build a proper house. When it rains the water drips from the ceiling, meaning that Leo and his children must sleep sitting up to avoid the water.

Leo’s middle son, 11, waits for a train to pass so he can re-enter the house.

Leo’s middle son, 11, waits for a train to pass so he can re-enter the house.

Leo makes figurines out of clay for his children to play with. A loving father, his first priority is to enroll his kids in school once he can find a new job.

Leo makes figurines out of clay for his children to play with. A loving father, his first priority is to enroll his kids in school once he can find a new job.

A clay figurine Leo made for one of his kids. The children name this Manny Pacquiao after the Philippines most famous boxer.

A clay figurine Leo made for one of his kids. The children name it Manny Pacquiao after the Philippines most famous boxer.

Leo is photographed in the police headquarters in Manila. With the help of some private donors, Leo is able to take steps towards getting a new job.

Leo is photographed in the police headquarters in Manila. With the help of some private donors, Leo is able to take steps towards getting a new job.

Leo fills out forms in the police headquarters in Manila. A police clearance is a necessary document for a construction job in the Philippines.

Leo fills out forms in the police headquarters in Manila. A police clearance is a necessary document for a construction job in the Philippines.

Leo is examined by a doctor in Manila Hospital. A “fit to work” certificate is required for a job on a construction site in the Philippines.

Leo is examined by a doctor in Manila Hospital. A “fit to work” certificate is required for a job on a construction site in the Philippines.

Leo is x-rayed in a private clinic in San Andres.

Leo is x-rayed in a private clinic in San Andres.

The results of Leo’s x-ray shows that he has no respiratory problems and is fit to work.

The results of Leo’s x-ray shows that he has no respiratory problems and is fit to work.

With his medical and police clearances obtained, Leo prepares to search for a new job. The certification process cost less than $30, but without the help of private donors this sum would have been impossible for Leo to accumulate.

With his medical and police clearances obtained, Leo prepares to search for a new job. The certification process cost less than $30, but without the help of private donors this sum would have been impossible for Leo to accumulate.

 

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Family in San Andres

Only four years old, this boy has been left in the care of his 85-year-old grandmother.

I’ve been working on a project documenting the squatters communities around Manila, and came across this boy and his family in San Andres. This boy, four years old, and his sister, 5 years old, have been left in the care of their 85-year-old grandmother. Their father is currently in jail and in desperation the mother dropped the kids with their grandmother and returned to the provinces. No one knows where she is now.

Though a caring woman, the grandmother is getting too old to properly look after the children, often leaving them on their own for hours at a time while she wanders the neighbourhood. They rely on the charity of the San Andres community to eat, and some church groups who provide vitamins for the kids.

If anyone is interested in contributing $5 to help these kids, use the paypal “donate” button on the right-hand column of this blog page, and add the note “for San Andres family”. I will give whatever money is raised to the local community representative to organize a support program.

 

Posted in Blog, Philippines, Poverty Also tagged , , , |

Hossain’s Birds

The Mach Bazaar is a Dhaka slum built along the sides of the train tracks. Trains blast through the area roughly every ten minutes, sometimes from both directions at once, sending the inhabitants scattering for their homes. The poverty is severe.

But one man, S.K. Afzal Hossain, keeps hope alive in a unique way. Often considered to be little more than pest animals, in one section of the Mach Bazar pigeons are a source of optimism and a potential micro-business.

A former freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s 1971 war against Pakistan, Hossain organized an association of local shopkeepers to buy and breed Shiragji pigeons. Prized for being easily domesticated, and their ability to recognize voice commands, Shiragji pigeons are expensive at around 10 000 Taka ($125 US). By pooling their money the association was able to buy a pair, which they have now expanded to over 30 birds.

Along with the principle game keeper, Gaffer, Hossain and his association hope to one day turn the operation into a small business and a source of revenue for the community. But even if no money comes, Hossain says he will continue to keep the birds. “They remind me of freedom,” says Hossain, 75.

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Dhaka Life

The largest city in the country, Dhaka is Bangladesh’s chaotic capital. The economic heart of the country, the city is home to an estimated 12 million people, also making it one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Every year the city grows as Bangladesh’s rural population moves to the capital in search of higher wages, yet a estimated 34% of the population lives below the poverty line. This is a look at the life of the lower classes in what the Economist Intelligence Unit named the world’s most unliveable city for 2012.

A mother comforts her child at the Sadarghat ferry terminal.

A mother comforts her child at the Sadarghat ferry terminal.

Sleeping workers at the Mach Bazaar.

Sleeping workers at the Mach Bazaar.

A street boy bathes in the polluted Buriganga river.

A street boy bathes in the polluted Buriganga river.

A woman begs for money outside the Kamalapur railway station.

A woman begs for money outside the Kamalapur railway station.

A rickshaw driver in mid day traffic.

A rickshaw driver in mid day traffic.

A reflective moment near the Sadraghat ferry terminal.

A reflective moment near the Sadraghat ferry terminal.

A boy is caught in a rainstorm along the Buriganga river.

A boy is caught in a rainstorm along the Buriganga river.

A butcher prepares a leg of goat in Sadarghat.

A butcher prepares a leg of goat in Sadarghat.

The owner of a small tea stand in Sadargaht.

The owner of a small tea stand in Sadargaht.

A welder in the Dolai Khal metal working district.

A welder in the Dolai Khal metal working district.

Men take a break in an open air lumber mill alng the Buriganga river.

Men take a break in an open air lumber mill alng the Buriganga river.

A small pottery shop in Sadarghat.

A small pottery shop in Sadarghat.

A man cuts barrel lids from a section of a steel salvaged from a supertanker. Bangladesh has a large industry built around the scrapping of ships from around the world.

A man cuts barrel lids from a section of a steel salvaged from a supertanker. Bangladesh has a large industry built around the scrapping of ships from around the world.

Steel parts in a salvage shop in the the Dolai Khal metal district.

Steel parts in a salvage shop in the the Dolai Khal metal district.

Men work together to stack logs in a lumber mill along the Buriganga river.

Men work together to stack logs in a lumber mill along the Buriganga river.

An alley in Sadarghat.

An alley in Sadarghat.

A labourer takes a break from piling brick fragments at a construction site in Dolai Khal.

A labourer takes a break from piling brick fragments at a construction site in Dolai Khal.

A pipe vendor in the Dolai Khal metal working district.

A pipe vendor in the Dolai Khal metal working district.

Men bathe after work in a public bath near the Mach Bazaar.

Men bathe after work in a public bath near the Mach Bazaar.

Construction workers prepare to sleep in an upper story of the uncompleted building site.

Construction workers prepare to sleep in an upper story of the uncompleted building site.

Pidgeons prepare for night in a small bird shop near the Kamalapur railway station.

Pidgeons prepare for night in a small bird shop near the Kamalapur railway station.

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Child Labor in Bangladesh: Auto Worker

A young boy repairs a car engine in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

With Ramadan (the biggest religious Muslim holiday) in full swing, the traffic has evolved from the ordinarily terrible to utter insanity. The newspaper announces dozens of new dead daily, killed in bus and rickshaw crashes. Two photographer friends of mine who are in the city now witnessed the unceremonious dumping of a 16-year-old boy’s corpse into a garbage pile in Old Dhaka yesterday, the result of a motorcycle taxi accident. Commuting to and from shooting sites has been predictably stressful.

I found this auto repair shop on a side street near the train station, staffed almost completely with child workers. He looked to be about 7 years old, yet he seemed more competent in engine maintenance that I will likely ever be.

This is part of a larger project on Child Labour in Bangladesh.

Posted in Bangladesh, Blog Also tagged , , , |

Bangladesh: Child Labor in Dhaka

A young boy washes recently machined metal parts in a small factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. These shops are ubiquitous in the city and many young workers earn as little as $40 per month.

“Sir, why do you take photos?” asks the shops foreman.

“I am trying to show the life of the people,” I reply, somewhat avoiding the real focus of my project.

“Child labor?” he asks, knowingly.

“Well, yes.”

“Very good Sir!” he replies, smiling broadly, “In Dhaka there are many good photos for you.”

This sort of conversation has become commonplace while documenting the child workers found throughout Bangladesh’s capital. At first I was taken aback by the total transparency with which people were willing to talk about an issue that I felt they would naturally avoid. But now I realize that this is the reality of Bangladesh: incredibly resilient people who do what they have to do to survive.

The shooting has been simultaneously very easy, and incredibly difficult. Access to the child workers, which I imagined would be very difficult to get, has been completely free. Factory owners wave me into their workshops with smiles and then stand patiently as I make images of the dreary conditions from multiple angles. At first I thought that they didn’t fully understand what I was doing, but I now know that they understand completely. This is just part of life in the world’s most densely populated country.

What has made this project challenging is the fact that there are simply no tourists in Bangladesh. Apart from a group of South Korean volunteers, I have seen virtually no one I can distinguish as foreign. As a result, whenever I stop somewhere to shoot, people crowd the scene, eager to have their photo taken. Isolating a subject becomes almost impossible unless they are backed into a corner, and since I only carry a 17-35 mm wide angle lens, portraits of a single person are mostly out of the question. I’m shooting upward of 700 photos every two hours just trying to get 2-3 usable ones.

But Bangladeshi hospitality is some of the best I’ve ever experienced. For all the headaches I couldn’t have imagined a more welcoming people, and for that I am grateful.

I recently met the inspiring and talented Bangladeshi photojournalist GMB Akash who gave me a copy of his wonderful book Survivors. I’m working on a full length post just about him and his book, the product of 15 years of shooting in his home country. More on that later.

This is part of a larger project on Child Labour in Bangladesh.

Posted in Bangladesh, Blog, Child Labour Also tagged , , |

Bangladesh: Dhaka and Child Labour

A young boy, working in an engine repair shop, shows his oil covered hands.

I’ve been trying to make a post from Bangladesh for the last few days but have been stopped by a terrible Internet connection and a hotel staff that, though exceptionally friendly, seems oblivious to the problem.

Two days ago I asked the manager if it was possible to improve the connection, to which he replied “no problem Sir, I will send the internet cable to your room”. By 10:30 p.m. no one had shown up so I gave up and went to bed only to be woken up at midnight by an urgent knocking at my door. One of the cleaning staff, who I think is about 17, greeted me politely and proudly offered me an Ethernet cable. Half asleep I thanked him and shut the door, only to realize after ten minutes of searching that there was no place to plug it in to.

The next morning I returned the cable to the manager, who then immediately asked me to add him to Facebook.

Bizarre service aside, Dhaka has been an intense and visceral experience. It is the middle of Ramadan, so traffic is suffocating. I spend a minimum of two hours a day commuting to and from locations, and the shooting is arduous. Because there is essentially no tourism industry here, especially so in the areas I am visiting, I am a huge spectacle for the local people. If I stop walking for more than one minute an audience gathers around me, often as many as 20 people standing in a semi circle and staring. It is unnerving to look away from the viewfinder and find myself totally surrounded.

But the Bangladeshis are incredibly photogenic and very open to having their pictures taken, so the images have been great, though the subject matter is heavy. Child labour is endemic in Bangladesh, though I am learning the issue is not as cut and dried as I thought.

The Wi-Fi seems to work for a 20-30 minute window at 7 a.m. every morning, so I’ll try and keep the posts more regular from now on.

This is part of a larger project on Child Labour in Bangladesh.

A slum along the train tracks near Kaoran Bazaar, Dhaka.

Posted in Bangladesh, Blog, Child Labour Also tagged , , , |