I for one have to have a cup of tea [even better if it is chai made with all the right spices] every morning. But after a trip to Munnar, in Kerala, I was interested by its production. More than how it was produced, it was who produced it that intrigued me the most.
Check this commercial out for Snapple’s White Tea. Like most consumers, we are loathe to know where our food comes from. We poke fun at what we don’t know.
But the business of tea is a serious multi-billion dollar industry spanning a great many nations. Munem Wasif, a photographer based in Bangladesh, has been quietly working on a project documenting the lives of tea plantation workers.
Come back to see Munem’s images, one-a-day beginning on March 1.
Meanwhile, here is his statement:
First, I’d like to say that this didn’t begin as an assignment for me. I was photographing my friend’s wedding in Habiganj District in Bangladesh. After finishing the assignment, he told me that I should visit a tea garden. I said okay.
I had the typical visual of tea gardens in my mind; what we saw on TV ads – an exotic, green, ‘travel’ look. It was a rainy day and we were going by motorbike. When I entered the tea garden, my preconceived ideas broke down, because then I was seeing how the people really lived and worked. A huge community… they were also citizens of my country, but I didn’t know them. Yet I drink tea every day for refreshment. So it was a striking thing for me to do this story.
When I started working on this story, it was really tough because there was no access for journalists there. You can take a picture of beautiful tea estate and leave it there. However the real problem arises when you are talking to the workers, visiting their house, breaking bread with them and talking to them about their problems. A very different picture emerges then. I worked in various gardens, so that the management couldn’t notice me. Meanwhile, I was learning about the colonial structure and political framework of the tea garden – the meaning of ‘estate’, the colonial dress code, even how the garden was mapped. For me, it is a modern form of slavery.
The tea garden authorities want to isolate the workers from the mainstream media and workers live a hidden life so that we can’t see their sufferings. None of the management wants to cooperate to show us the workers life. Another huge problem is that I cannot go to the same tea garden frequently. Contacts dissolve. So every time I go to a garden I have to make new relationships, which may not always be renewable.
I have been working on this story for almost two years. The conditions in Ratna are very bad, and it has been closed for almost one-and-a-half years. So the workers have nothing to do. Many have died because of a lack of medicine. But Lashkarpur produces tea steadily. The cycle of oppression will continue, like in many other tea gardens in Bangladesh.
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