By Shea Parton & Jason Motlagh
Photos by Jason Motlagh
Early 2013 our friends at the at the Pulitzer Center introduced us to Jason Motlagh, an award-winning writer, photographer and filmmaker. We heard that he had an upcoming reporting project in Bangladesh and we asked him to visit our women’s cooperative and document the story behind our Market Bag, Garden Bag, Wine Tote and Standard Tote. During Jason’s first visit he captured how our manufacturing partner has been empowering female artisans in the rural community of Saidpur, Bangladesh for over 40 years. In July of 2013 Pulitzer sent Jason back to Bangladesh to investigate the local garment industry post-Rana Plaza. In between Jason's reportage project he was able to re-connected with our co-op manger, Mohammad Ghayasuddin in Dhaka. We have been patiently working on securing an American visa for Mohammad and Jason was kind enough to waltz Ghayasuddin into the local embassy and successfully finalized Ghayasuddin's first American visa. We can't wait to announce Mohammad's upcoming visit to Los Angeles.
The following photostory summarizes Jason's July 2013 Pulitzer assignment and his collaboration with JR's global Inside Out Project:
DHAKA – In April, the Rana Plaza tragedy once again cast a grim spotlight on the underbelly of Bangladesh’s ready- made garment industry. More than 1130 people died when the multi-story building on the outskirts of Dhaka collapsed, most of them garment workers earning the world’s lowest wages. The toll was so great that after years of foot-dragging, major Western brands agreed to a pair of landmark accords that commit them to invest in factory safety upgrades, greater transparency and an end to illegal sub-contracting that has left dangerous gaps in their supply chains.
Late this summer I traveled back to Bangladesh to investigate how authorities and foreign brands were making good on their promises. There were some hopeful signs. Fires and other deadly accidents were less frequent, and workers confident enough to stage protests for higher wages. But in a country as poor and corrupt as they come, cleaning up such a lucrative industry is easier said than done. Factory inspections are going slowly, hamstrung by a shortage of experts and a lack of coordination. And big American and European brands have failed to provide substantial compensation to scores of victims and their families. Many have yet to receive anything.
Making the workplace safe across the industry will take a long time. But the reality is that garment making in Bangladesh still provides crucial employment for millions of people with few prospects. There is a powerful drive to earn, particularly among women who are the industry’s backbone. Most are proud of the fact that they work six days a week, 12 hours a day, gaining more independence and respect as family breadwinners. This is the side of the industry that is often lost in all the bad news. Before leaving, my partner Susie Taylor and I decided it was time to shift the focus.
In collaboration with artist JR’s global Inside Out Project and CounterFoto, an upstart photo agency founded by my friend Saiful Haq Omi, we installed mural-sized pictures of garment workers on the walls and roofs of the capital’s largest slum, Korail, part of a day-long event that also included a community clean up. The black-and-white images – a mix of gritty portraits, galleries and giant eyes – are visible from the bustling streets and posh high-rise condos that loom across the water. They reflect the workers’ hopes and fears. And whether joyful, sad, vacant or defiant, they demand everyone’s attention. One hopes that they are not forgotten any time soon.
About the author: Jason Motlagh is an award-winning writer, photographer and filmmaker. Formerly TIME Magazine’s Kabul correspondent, he has reported from more than forty countries for leading U.S. and international media, including The Economist, Washington Post, New Republic, Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor, US News & World Report and Frontline/WORLD. His images have been published in newspapers and magazines worldwide and have featured in major festivals, museum shows and global advocacy campaigns. In recent years, Jason has received a series of grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to explore conflicts and human rights issues across Asia. We are thankful for Jason's friendship and willingness to be an Apolis Nomad, a group of inspiring friends that contribute to the Apolis Journal and regularly field-test our collection on their travels to help us improve durability. For more details of how to become an Apolis Nomad, email us.