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…
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?
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.
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.
Continue the journey on page 2…