Work environments in Biri tobacco factories are hazardous for the labourers as they inhale of tobacco dust, 13 October 2008. Qamruzzaman/The Stand

How the Green Turns Gray

Tobacco Worker - Bangladesh

Qamruzzaman

Rangpur, Bangladesh

British colonisers brought tobacco farming to Bangladesh about 200 years back. Since then, the dependency of the peasants on tobacco grew gradually. Lately many have turned to tobacco farming as return on investments is guaranteed by multinationals and big corporations.

Tobacco producers are mainly in the North and Southern-North districts of Bangladesh, as are the processing plants and cigarette and “Biri,” a local, cheaper version of a cigarette.

Factory owners, farmers, traders, and the Biri workers may all be from different classes and have diverse interests, but they are all affected by tobacco production. Some profit off it. Some, including a large number of children, are being exploited and have no choice other than carrying on with it.

A recent study found that farmers find it hard to resist the crop, because tobacco companies will loan them the money needed for everything from fertilizers and pesticides and guarantee the a market for the harvest. It is a relationship that often finds the farmer “tied to a vicious debt cycle.” Thus the cycle goes on. The green leaves turn gray and become ready to chew or smoke and the dreams of the poor farmers for a better future also gradually gray, only to wither away.

Q&A with Qamruzzaman

What drew you to this story?
It was a personal project to be submitted to the documentary class in the final year at Pathshala, my photography school. The teacher suggested to us, the students, to plan for long stories so we can follow up for a long time.

I knew a huge amount of workforce is engaged in the tobacco industry in different places of Bangladesh. Many issues like environment, health, economy, and especially the work conditions of people are accumulated in a single topic. People engaged in the tobacco industry had been getting exploited for centuries. I always want to address things like those ones through my photography. So I decided to go for it.

Can you tell us a bit more about the lives of the people in these pictures?
There are different tiers of people I came across during that time − the workers, the farmers, the factory owners and the middlemen or traders.

The wages are too low for tobacco workers, as they cannot bargain for better due to an apparently unending supply of cheap labor, especially children. The worst thing is that employers keep exploiting workers and cashing in on this situation. But they are too poor to say ‘no’ since they have no other options. The irony is that, you can’t desist children or ailing ones from doing their ‘job’ in the name of protecting child or human rights. It would worsen their living conditions. You can’t imagine how vicious the face of poverty is out there. Literally, almost each and everyone are dependent on the tobacco business in some specific localities. So many children are engaged in making Biris in their homes.

What do the people feel about the work, about tobacco in general?
The factory owners do not care about human or child rights because no one is there to ensure such things. They just credit themselves for creating employment opportunities for the poor! What they make sure only is that nobody enters into the factory premises without their consent.

Farmers are totally unaware about the environmental consequences in the long run. They are happy as long as their crops are sold at good prices, sometimes in advance.

Traders or middlemen are no exceptions as the tobacco business is a good source of making bucks quickly.

Was there anything about this particular essay that stuck with you, even now?
Yes, the story of Saida Islam Laboni. I found the 11-year-old girl going back home after finishing her slot of work at a tobacco factory in Rangpur, a Northern district in Bangladesh. The grade-3-student worked there to support her impoverished family. She tried to work for a little longer to earn a bit more money with a view to continuing her study. Whenever I look at the image of the minor girl holding a bundle of Biris, I feel that my eyesight gets blurred with helpless tears. There are innumerous children who still work in unbelievable conditions just to lessen harsh burdens of acute poverty from their parents.

What kind of subjects do you prefer shooting? And what about those projects to you find creatively stimulating? 
I tend to go for the topics that tell the unheard stories of people around me. I try to be creative in searching of stories as well as telling them visually. Whatever I photograph I try to portray the characters of my stories with dignity. I wish I could depict hope in my every story but it doesn’t always necessarily happen.

You also work as a picture editor, how does working with other photographers’ pictures influence your own work? 
Photo editing is really a fun; however, it takes a greater responsibility to be a picture editor. Judgment is dangerous, but you have to do it when you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to another photographer’s work. You have to be more cautious and honest as well when you are an editor. So it really is a great learning curve to me. Being a picture editor, I learn the art of saying “more with less” that actually teaches me maneuvering the same principle in my own photography.

I’m inspired by many photographers, poets, musicians, architects, even the sportspersons. I get amused by good work of other photographers when I edit their pictures, but I try not to be influenced by their photos. It’s hard but I try not to be, pretty consciously.

Q&A conducted: July 2015
Photography from: October 2008 – March 2009