My Mission Was The Bangladesh Ship Breaking Yards. This Is What Happened (Jan/Feb 2003).
Bribed the disgruntled gate man, slipped through a small iron door into the ship breaking yards, and what I saw was indelible burnt into my mind forever…
I can’t recall the moment I decided to go to Bangladesh to photograph the ship breaking yards. The idea had been swimming around my head for a while. It seemed so crazy and outrageous that there was a good chance I’d attempt it. My destination was Batiary ship breaking yards, or Faujderhat, a 16 kilometres (9.9 miles) long beach 20 kilometres (12 miles) north-west of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
“Ship breaking or ship demolition is a type of ship disposal involving the breaking up of ships for scrap recycling. Most ships have a lifespan of a few decades before there is so much wear that refitting and repair become uneconomical. Ship breaking allows materials from the ship, including steel and equipment to be recycled and reused.”
Of course, to be honest, there’s nothing scary whatsoever about Bangladesh, and some remote tidal mud flats that house hundreds (or thousands) of ships in various skeletal states of disrepair. The challenge was to A) get into the ship breaking yards and B) get good photographs.
There were other challenges to consider too:
- Dealing with the language
- Finding a knowledgable guide who I trusted completely
- Good weather
- Negotiating transport
- Wondering why on earth I was in Bangladesh…
Where Did Ship Breaking Come From?
How the ship breaking yards came about is a phenomenal story of ground-level entrepreneur brilliance. Apparently, in 1960, after a severe cyclone, a Greek ship was stranded on the shores of Sitakunda, Chittagong. The ship, the M D Alpine, couldn’t be refloated and sat there for several years. 5 years later, Chittagong Steel House bought the ship and had it scrapped. Although it took years to scrap the ship, this gave birth to the Bangladesh ship breaking industry.
So around 1969, ship breaking was introduced to the area. As well as ship breaking and building sailing ships, Bangladesh exports garments, knitwear, frozen food, jute and jute products, leather products, tea and chemical products. Country boats trade cotton, rice, spices, sugar and tobacco.
I guess if you have one ship to scrap (and employ people/make profits), then why not get more? After all, there’s plenty of ships in the world, right?
The next phase was during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The damaged Pakistani ship Al Abbas was salvaged by a Soviet team who were working at Chittagong port. In 1974 a local company bought the ship as scrap and the rest is history. Commercial ship breaking was introduced to the country.
As you can guess, the ship breaking industry grew steadily through the 1980s and Bangladesh was ranked number two in the world by tonnage scrapped by middle 1990s. There were 26 ship breaking yards in the area by 2008, 40 in 2009, and from 2004 to 2008, the area was the largest ship breaking yard in the world. Sometimes all it takes is one entrepreneurial idea with a vision. :o)
How I Got To The Ship Breaking Yards…
I wasn’t overly concerned. After all, I’d been kamikazed through streets late at night in Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) and seen a guy physically run, jump and hoist himself onto my bus… catching the door and swinging in… but that was pretty mild really. Bangladesh wasn’t all that bad. It was only after I’d been in Chittagong a week or so that a friendly bearded guy got off his scooter, caught up with me and said it was way too dangerous to be out walking at night.
I jiggled my head back and forth like the Indians do and thought to myself, I’m just going for a walk, looking at the buildings, observing the people, looking for a cafe to kick back in (highly unlikely, but a comforting thought). And no one seems to be noticing the white guy with the really expensive camera anyway. (Good. I can go about my job of photographing without any issues. That’s the way I like it to be).
But he spooked me a little, so home I went.
We’re talking insane bus rides, high risk sh#t, and the ship yards…
So, a new day. I won’t go into the first hotel/guesthouse I stayed at. It was a house of horrors. I couldn’t help but think how much the guy on the hotel desk hated his job. When sun came up I scurried away and discovered a better guesthouse. Much easier when you’re not carrying 50KG of gear
The take home from that? Always travel light. In case you need to get out quick, and move fast on your feet.
Preparing for the early morning tuktuk ride to the ship breaking yards was insane. Had to wear earplugs (I think the tuktuk wanted to tell everyone he had arrived), wrap my face with a scarf to stop the dust and noise and too many people noticing I wasn’t a local, and waited for my guide to show up.
Honestly, I didn’t care too much. That mode of travel was uncomfortable, but when you’re in Bangladesh, sometimes you’ve got to do what the Bangladeshis do. Besides, I was on a mission.
It’s an epic challenge to actually get access to the shipyards. The owners keep their business secure from everyone and their brother. Huge metal fences run around the perimeter (made out of ship metal of course). Then there’s like this little door, workers moving in and out. And there weren’t that many access roads in. It was like a 30-ish minute tuktuk drive to get anywhere remotely near the yards.
To get access we pretended to be tourists, asked really nice and handed a fistful of dollars over.
To get access we pretended to be tourists, acted as casual as we could, asked really nice and handed a fistful of dollars over. The fact that my guide was also a local journalist was something best kept to ourselves.
It’s maddening. We went to the shipyards like 4 days in a row, and each time I arrived at the gates the doorman either said “no” or the whole place was sinking in a cloud of “no photos today” mist, with absolutely zero sunlight filtering through until like, later afternoon. I could have shot in those conditions, but it would have been difficult to shoot any distance or background views.
“…Around 40 percent of the heavy industrial activities of the country is located in Chittagong city, which include drydocks, dock yards, an oil refinery, steel mills, power plants, cement clinker factories, automobile and pharmaceutical industries, chemical plants, cable and textile manufacturing and a urea fertilizer factory”
Still a nice place to visit and photograph though. (As you can see by the Chittagong street scene snap).
My guess is that those heavy industries are somewhat related to those heavy ‘pea-soup’ mists that were sitting over my beloved ship yards every morning.
I knew they didn’t want me in there. Greenpeace were getting heavy on them too:
Many ship breaking yards operate in developing nations with lax or no environmental law, enabling large quantities of highly toxic materials to escape into the general environment and causing serious health problems among ship breakers, the local population and wildlife. Environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace have made the issue a high priority for their activities.
The Undiscovered Continent
Eventually we got in. It is a sight to make you weep and hang your mouth open in awe. It’s an intense industrial wasteland as you’d ever get, with little figures like ants scurrying around in the distance, and half eaten ship carcasses scattered as far as the eye can see.
As for toxicities, it’s probably the greatest example of a dangerous ‘work safe’ environment you could possibly imagine.
It’s a dark and forbidding landscape, yet beautiful in other ways. The worker’s colourful clothing contrasts with huge ship structures that jut heavenwards. I tread carefully on an oily ground, make my way around piles of metal, abandoned barrels, shards of steel and other potential dangers.
Health and safety is almost non-existent.
But there’s a friendliness to the ship yard workers and it’s humbling.
He’s no photographer. He’s just a tourist. Curious to snap some pics.
So in I went, with my guide explaining away to the powers that be, he’s not a photographer. He’s just a tourist, curious to snap some pics. And I’m definitely no journalist. But I got an hour or two to tread carefully around the wasteland, snap what I could and be secretive about it. Use speed and sleuth as you would on a secret mission.
Anyways, I’ll try to let the Bangladesh ship breaking photos below tell a bit of the story. And when I find the shots of me preparing for my early morning mission impossible I will add them to this page too.
See more of my Bangladesh ship breaking photos here
I wanted to create art, but it felt more like photo journalism. To shoot I had to get the OK. I’d pull my camera out for a few minutes, snap away, then hide the thing again. Trying to be just like a ‘normal’ tourist (whatever that was)… So now you know why I prefer smaller cameras.
Bangladesh Ship Breaking Photos
Bangladesh Shipyards Slideshow
You’ll be there drinking in this vast craziness and suddenly a sonic “boom” (at least, that’s what it sounded like) reverberates across the distance. At 3 stories up, another shipyard worker has just finished cutting through a chunk of metal ship wall as it slammed down towards the muddy earth below.
Couldn’t help but thinking of the safety factor. Potential dangers involving oxyacetylene torches, welding and jagged metal edges flashed through my head. Especially the shoeless stuff. And those workers hauling the wires and pulling metal through thick mud…
Still, most of the workers were able to smile with me, and were as curious about me as I was with them. But I couldn’t help but cry a little. My heart jumped into my mouth as they grimaced into a smile for me.
I’ve only been sadder a few times (once was S-21 in Cambodia – walking around like a zombie crying my eyes out. Can’t handle the fact that humans could do that to each other). Here it was sad, but at the same time, the most amazing spectacle of human endeavor and deconstruction that I’d ever witnessed.
Of course, no-one in this day and age should be working like this. Maybe it was OK a few hundred years ago. But not now, and not today. I get upset looking at these images because it reminds me of walking around that place with all these figures hauling metal, cutting giants ships into little pieces.
So… after I nearly killed my translator for telling the shipyard workers gathering around me what to do and how to look… (He was a nice kid, I just was CRAZY about shooting “natural” – the essence of a great photographer, right?)
Man did I wish to be fluent in Bengali right then!
I respect these people who work in this place. Let me do what I do best.
Anyway, just imagine if you can a wide expanse, as far as the eye can see, beach front or beach flat with caked, dry mud, and a little bit of ocean rolling in at some sections. Then imagine about 20 or so huge, container ships in various levels of dismemberment.
And in the far distance, tiny figures clambering over them, pushing things, pulling things, hosting things, cutting stuff.
These ship breaking yards are as surreal as you could get.
The caretaker of the area who looked after us had one such accident a few years ago. His hand was fused into a clumpy ball with the fingers all pushed into the palm. That was a heavy metal shipyards accident. I held his hand when I departed.
Hope you now get an overview of the industrial revolution that’s happening here in Bangladesh. There’s many more crazy adventures into forbidden, no-go zones to be had. Here’s my 2014 travel destination map for starters.
(China is looking promising, and I’m pretty sure they have their own deep port ship breaking yard).
Of course, Bangladesh was worth the adventure and I’d go back any day. Best take your own transport or driver though. Local transport type stuff, ie; bus drivers hitting road holes at 100 Km p/h is NOT fun.
It’s funny really, when you look back. Access to the shipyards was like the easiest part. The difficulty was getting to Batiary. It was such an uncomfortable, dusty, noisy, driver-crazy, will the sun ever come out road trip that it made the arrival at a huge walled in beach front seem quite (almost) welcome.
Bangladesh Ship Yards on Google Earth
3D views from above the Bangladesh ship yards (Google Earth):
BTW, Where is the Bangladesh shipyards exactly?
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