Martin Hurley PhotoLife

Vagabond – Adventurer – Photographer – Adrenaline Junkie

The Scary Truth Behind my Bangladesh Ship Breaking Photos

In this article
  1. Introduction
  2. Epic adventures
  3. Ship breaking photos

My Mission Was The Bangladesh Ship Breaking Yards. In Jan/Feb 2003 This Is What Happened

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…

bangladesh ship breaking photos - dude on the roofI 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.

bangladesh ship breaking photos - google earthImagine this guy looking at the M D Alpine just plunked there, with no chance of any movement, and thinking “well if we can’t move it, then why can’t we take it apart and sell it, piece by piece?”

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, leather, 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.

policemen in chittagong, bangladeshThe photograph on the right is a group of Bangladesh policeman I met as I was exploring Chittagong. Yep, it’s a pretty weird place. Notice the shotgun. These guys were equipped for something…

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…

dude in streetWas a bit more careful after that point. But when you’re hungry to ‘get the shot’ you can do dumb things. Don’t do dumb things. OK, so I can be a little narrow minded when it comes to photography.

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.

Continue the journey on page 2…

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2 Responses to “The Scary Truth Behind my Bangladesh Ship Breaking Photos”

  1. Khondker Fahmida Ahmed says:

    Hey Martin,

    We are Bangladeshis not Bangladeshians :)

    I used to think, given a choice, one would want to photograph only beautiful things and here you’ve gone and captured some of the ugliness that is part of the reality in 3rd world countries like mine. I’m not really sure how to react. I’m wondering if they’d be smiling if they knew about the health hazards and life threatening risks they’re taking? Or are they smiling in spite of them???

    • Thanks Fahmida, I knew you would correct me. :-)
      Ya I photographed this like 10 years ago, so it was just what I was doing photographic-wise then. But you make good points. I thought about that stuff too.
      – Martin

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