Rana Plaza Tragedy

22 May 13

Posted at 9:18

This is my first photo blog of my Rana Plaza project with images. Poor internet access prevented me from uploading images. Since arriving home on Sunday i have been really busy with two exhibitions plus masses of processing for other work I undertook whilst in Bangladesh. Here then is just a snippet of the situation in Savar/Dhaka 20 days after the disaster.

Lillies

The water filled gap beyond this barbed wire is where he eight story Rana Plaza building stood. The rescue operation was stood down on 14th May 2013 after every last piece of rubble had been sifted to ensure all bodies were recovered. Behind me when I shot this is about a thirty metre tranche of land with more substantial barriers and behind them, 21 days after the building collapse there are still hundreds of people, staring, praying and in many cases still waiting for news of missing relatives. The Army and Civil Defence organisations have today handed the site over to the civillian authorities. There is a smell of death in the air when you enter the site.

 

Officer Sahib

This is Officer Sahib of the Fire Rescue and Civil Defence - an organisation more like the military than the military. This man was one of those in overall control of the rescue operation. For the last twenty one days he has worked 12 hours on 12 hours off at the Rana Plaza site. I will recount some of his experiences in future blogs. Due to his command and the services of hundreds of volunteers from Red Crescent and University students along with untrained civilian volunteers victims, even though seriously injured had their lives saved. Like this girl, one of 420 taken to the Pangu Hospital in Dhaka.

Rana Plaza Survivor

She is 19 years old and is pictured here with her husband. they have no children. Her left leg is amputated just below the hip, her right leg has three fractures. Above the obvious fears for her future due to her injuries I feel it will be a challenge for her husband to reamin supporting her in the harshness of the poverty and the cultural pressures that will be on them. She was paid just £34 a month for working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, in an unsafe, overcrowded building. A building constructed illegally on land that was grabbed by a crook who had alliegencies with local politicians. All that made possible so the likes of Primark amongst others can supply our country with cheap clothes. Another penny on a £20 top from Primark would have doubled this girl's, and the 4300 others who worked in the Rana Plaza, salaries. Five pence on a £20 top might have meant that higher safety standards could have been enforced, 1127 workers would still be alive, 2000 would not have both physical and mental scars and up to 500 would not still be unaccounted for.

Grieving Mother

Every day since 24th April this lady has come to the site to search for her daughter. Her grief does not diminish and nor does her hope. Hope was that, like others, there may have been a miracle and her daughter would be found alive. Now the hope is that her daughter's body will be found - it won't! I have seen for myself there is no way any body has not been found. Most likely her daughter is amongst many who have been buried anonymously for two reasons, one being that the bodies were stored in the open air, 35 degrees centigrade in the day, in the playing fields of the Adhar Chandra High School which is were bodies were taken for relatives to collect them. The  other reason being that the Muslim faith requires bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death - of course some leeway could be made but at some point for both reasons burial is appropriate. All unknown bodies that were buried  were DNA screened so at some point I have no doubt this lady will have a match made. But that is not on her mind at present. I guess there is a slim chance her daughter is actually in one of the numerous hospitals that took the injured. Let's hope so.

Widower and Orphan

I visited an area of Dhaka where many garment factory workers live together. They live in corrugated huts similar to what they would have had in their villages many hundreds of kilometres outside of Dhaka. I went there at the request of a representative of the National Federation of Garment Workers intending to meet survivors who were less injured or had been unscathed and to meet bereaved families. As I was leaving this man and his son appeared and the man insisted I photographed them. His wife, the boy's Mother worked at Rana Plaza and is missing. Father and son were as grief stricken as I have seen anyone. The Dad refuses to believe his wife can be dead. He seemed to think that my photographing them would bring her back. 

 

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Rana Plaza Project Days Three and Four

18 May 13

Posted at 10:07

I am still being defeated by technology so this again is a text only blog. There will be images galore in coming days. Yesterday I took time out of the Rana Plaza project to do some shooting for a charity the Al Mustafa Welfare Trust on behalf of the Media Trust. This was to involve photographing orphans and their mothers. That may sound odd but in Bangladesh you are classed as an orphan if your father dies and the consequences are grim financially and, especially if you are a girl, the extended family, brothers and sisters on the fathers side may disown you. So the Al Mustafa charity helps such orphans and the Mothers. The project involved travelling out of Dhaka to a village in Kirshorgong District called Motlovpur. The journey was a three hour roller coaster ride. Our driver seemed to think that Allah and constant use of the car's horn would enable him to have a clear path through traffic and that all and sundry would get out if his way. 

We finally arrived at Motlovpur with everyone's nerves torn to shreds except the driver. A wonderful rural scene, rice harvesting, goats and ducks everywhere, such contrasts from Dhaka. As soon as we walked into the village I was surrounded by inquisitive and somewhat amazed villagers. It would appear that I was the first Westerner to visit Motlovpur. In addition to me and Roni my 'fixer' we were accompanied by a man from the charity who now resided in Dhaka but was born and brought up in this village. I met, interviewed around a dozen orphans and their Mothers or in some cases Grandmothers. Visited their houses, simple corrugated iron shacks and photographed them in line with my brief. Everywhere we went a crowd appeard and smiled and stared at me. We were invited to lunch in the house of an elder of the village as we ate a big crowd of villages, their dogs, goats and ducks gathered around the door and windows (no glass) to watch me eat!

We spent a about three hours in the village and then had a torturous five hour journey back to Dhaka. Allah looked kindly on our driver but I'm not sure many of the rickshaws, trucks and buses he attempted to run off the road did. We were so late back to Dhaka I missed a planned shoot at a garment factory as part of the Rana Plaza project.

So this morning Roni and I set off to shoot in a garment factory. So far I have shot the Rana Plaza site, and have interviewed and photographed survivors both in hospital and at home, rescuers,  bereaved families and the families of those still missing. The final piece of my project was to photograph inside a working garment factory. At the first factory, and when I say factory it's not what you might imagine, we finally met with the owners, having waded through the hierarchy that seems to exist everywhere in Bangladesh, only to be told that we did not have sufficient papers or permissions from the government. This happened time and time again. We ventured into dark and dingy buildings, climbing dodgy stairs, got past various security and lower level people to finally meet the owners and ask for permission to photograph, We explained my project, my student status and how I will tell the story of the Rana Plaza in a photographic exhibition. The owners then with smiley faces told us in no uncertain terms we could not have permission to photograph in their factory. They were sorry but government rules wouldn't allow us without the correct paperwork. Roni suggested that they thought we were either safety officials or foreign media looking to exploit their poor work conditions or lack of safety.

We were about to give up when we got to our final garment factory, we agreed to try just one more time. We waded through the familiar hierarchy and arrived in the owner's office Mr J.M. Shamsul Arefin of Mayc's Garments Limited in Mirpur Dhaka. I ran through my now familiar story and tried to cover off the negative points other owners had made. Mr Arefin was nice and offered us tea, a first. Him and Roni exchanged words in Bangla. Roni smiled and said to me we have permission.

A  manager took us to two different floors and I was free to take photos of what and who I wished. To me this was a clean and not overcrowded factory with obvious safety facilities. I doubt the previous factories had this standard and am sure the Rana Plaza did not. After shooting I returned to Mr Arefin's office thanked him and congratulated him on his factory. I also took his photograph which seemed to impress him. As a foreigner I stand little chance of getting into a substandard factory in the current environment. The Rana Plaza collapse really is a national disaster and embarrassment and I think will lead ultimately to improved conditions.

i find it interesting that Macy's export mainly to German retailers not to the USA/British multinationals that used Rana Plaza manufacturers, the Primarks, Gap, H&M, even Benneton who deny buying from Rana Plaza manufacturers but had their paperwork found in the wreckage. Are the Germans willing to demand safety levels? Are they willing to pay just a few pence per garment more to look after the well being and safety of local workers? It seems so to me, I will investigate further.

 

I took a photograph of bobbins loaded with cotton feeding the machines, it made me shudder when I rembered the hundreds of bobbins I saw and photographed in the debris of the Rana Plaza where 1127 bodies were recovered over 2000 were seriously injured and  up to 500 are still unaccounted for.

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Rana Plaza Project Day Two

16 May 13

Posted at 1:19

Today was spent interviewing and photographing rescuers. Technology shortcomings still prevent image uploads so again today it's text only. A cyclone hit Bangladesh this morning so I awoke to heavy rain and wind and a few flooded roads. We still set off on our schedule, in the UK this weather would have brought the country to a halt but here they just get on with it.

The day started by visiting the Red Crescent.  I interviewed  and photographed two of the rescuer volunteers after meeting with their director. It was  quite emotional listening to their experiences from arriving at the building just one hour after the collapse and staying there for 21 days. For not the last time today we heard how the collapsed building was likened to a pile of eight pancakes with bodies trapped between each of them. One of the moist heartbreaking stories was how voices could be heard and talked to but it was impossible to reach them, then one by one they went quiet and the rescuers, boys of just 18, knew this time they would need a body bag not  a stretcher. This was repeated day in and out for the first 17 days.

Next we went to university and met a couple of amazing students.  They have been Red Crescent volunteers since they were 12 years old. They had limited medical experience but did have dead body recovery training but 21 days ago neither had had to recover a dead body  - they now have personally recovered many tens of bodies. It's easy to see the emotional scars. At the university they run a fund to support bereaved families and people who are seriously injured (multi amputees and spinal injuries. Their  aim is to provide support and rehabilitation to them for months/years to come. They are passionate about doing something for those many in Bangladesh who have suffered for the garment industry. These are everyday university students who do all this voluntarily. It is humbling to talk with them and witness their pride and enthusiasm to make a change.

Last of all we visited the Fire Rescue and Civil Defence. A military like government run institution which appears locked in a colonial time warp. I interviewed the director of operations Major Mohammad Mahboob, a very impressive character who took me through the rescue process for Rana Plaza. He enjoyed having his photo taken as much as I enjoyed taking it. I then met with the team who were in charge of the whole rescue operation over the 21 days. I will cover more of it in future blogs (along with images). Their experiences and their stories are nothing short of remarkable. 

I have now visited the Rana Plaza site, the homes of the survivors and bereaved families and have visited the hospitals and met the severely injured. Tomorrow I will visit a working garment factory and meet and photograph workers.

That is of course assuming cyclone Mahasen has moved on and left us intact!

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Rana Plaza Project Day One

15 May 13

Posted at 4:52

Unfortunately technology has defeated me so I am currently unable to upload images. So just a text update . Today I started by visiting a hospital to meet and photograph injured survivors. I met many men and women with limb and spinal injuries. Many a who had undergone amputations. The most severely injured appear to have been on the fifth floor. One man I met was trapped for three days. I interviewed the hospital director, a proud man who spoke impressively how his staff have coped and will continue to cope for many months in rehabilitating the many injured. 

I then visited the site of the Rana Plaza building. It was handed over to the civilian authorities from the army yesterday. It is not possible that there are any more bodies to be recovered but there are still over 100 , some reports say 500, missing. I met people with missing relatives at the site still praying that their loved ones bodies will be found. They won't! 

Next I visited an area where many garment workers and their families live in houses constructed of corrugated iron. Again I met survivors less severely injured and I met bereaved families and again families with missing relatives.

I visited the school where ambulances took the deceased as they were recovered. Where relatives came to identify and take away their dead. A pile of coffins awaits more deceased but none will be found. Those unclaimed had DNA taken and were buried. According to their relgion Muslims should be buried within 24 hours of death when possible.

I expect many of those 'missing' have in fact been buried and in time through DNA will be identified.

I spent a long time with the military who have taken Reshma, the girl who was trapped for 17 days, to their hospital. After getting in touch with a Colonel at the military HQ who is the person who could grant me permission to meet and photograph her he advised me of the paperwork he would require to make a decision. He required it to be hand delivered to him and he said he would look positively on it. However the documents he requires will take me a day or two to compile and then   he will wish to deliberate. Well I fly home on Sunday so guess I will have to leave it this time. 

I visited a second hospital and met more survivors.

Tomorrow I am meeting the rescuers, civilian university students, the Red Crescent and the Fire Service. Then I will visit and photograph workers in a typical garment factory.

Today has been interesting in many ways it has also been very distressing at times. Retailers in the West must provide financial compensation to the thousands affected by this tragedy and must ensure that safety standards are improved urgently.

I will blog some images when I can get suitable Internet connections!

 

 

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Bangladesh

08 May 13

Posted at 12:20

Bangladesh

Why a photo of a Lonely Planet guide? I hear you ask.

Well it's there because in five days time I'll be on a plane to Dhaka. Off to do some serious documentary photography

After a few months of learning and practising documentary photography I have an appetitie to do something a little more meaningful

 

On 24th April the Rana Plaza, a garmet factory in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed with as many as 4000 workers inside. The death toll has risen to over 700 with an unknown number still missing.

I have arranged to meet and photograph some of the survivors both injured and uninjured, the heroic rescuers who are still searching for bodies today and some of the families of the bereaved. I also hope to visit a functioning garment factory.

I aim to tell the story of the  Rana Plaza disaster with an exhibition and potentially a photobook as part of my 3rd year BA studies.

Whilst there I will blog my progress here and include photos of Dhaka and it's people.

Check out this site next week.

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