Revolutionising fashion: the world of garment workers through their lenses

By Samir Sakir Siddiqui and Bonnie Chiu

Have you ever wondered where the sweater you are wearing comes from? Have you ever thought about how much effort has really been put into making it? These colourful sweaters that we are wearing tell a story we might rarely think of. A story of hard labour, a story of never ending miseries, a story garments workers who, with their endless efforts, have prepared a piece of perfection.

In Bangladesh, the garment sector provides the most employment opportunities to women, and a way — perhaps the only way — for rural, uneducated women to enter into the formal workforce. The garment industry accounts for 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, and 80% of garment factory workers are women. Yet, they are underpaid and receive little recognition from their families and society. The vivid images from the Rana Plaza factory collapse haunt them every day. Yet, we can’t deny the fact that these garment factories hold the biggest promise to changing lives for millions of women in Bangladesh.

A photography workshop for garment workers

Lensational, in its quest to work towards the empowerment of women through photography, organised a photography workshop at a sweater factory situated in Ojharpara, Gazipur, Bangladesh.

19 women participated in the photography workshop

Early on the hazy, foggy winter morning of 21 January, Lensational’s Bangladesh team arrived at the garment factory. The whole site seemed empty as there was no work going on. We gathered the workers that were to participate in the workshop; each and every one of them was excited because they had no idea what was going to happen.

After the workshop kicked off they slowly started engaging. The ice-breaking activities did their job, and participants quickly began taking photos. It was amazing to see that they weren’t even interested in the planned 10-minutes break; instead they asked more questions about photography. Some of them also started taking photos of the machines they normally work with.

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” Susan Sontag, On Photography

Hardships of Bangladeshi garment workers

In the context of structural inequality, the art of photography can function as a tool for cultivating creativity, freedom and even power; photography can be a means of documenting the lives of garment factory workers and transmit them to the world.

To illustrate the power of photography, we shared the work of Bangladeshi photojournalist Taslima Akhter in the workshop with whom Lensational has been able to connect. Her seminal work, “The Life and Struggle of Garment Workers”, has captured the world’s attention. For her, documentary photography is part of her engagement for workers’ and women’s rights. As a photographer, she works on issues relating to gender, the environment and culture, as well as exploring spaces of social discrimination.

Throughout the workshop we got to know more about the women’s lives and also their hardships. For example, one garment worker told us that the hard-earned income she makes is mostly taken by her husband. We also got to know that when there are orders from the buyers they sometimes have to work for long hours. Even more tragic scenarios exist in other garment factories in the country, some of the women mentioned. But despite their hard labour and relatively low income they seemed to be quite pleased with the job they are doing.

Unfurling the potential of Bangladeshi women

Mrs. Farzana and the workers during the workshop

During the workshop break the owner of the factory, Mrs. Farzana, joined us, talked to the workers and also encouraged them in learning photography.

Ms. Farzana, one of the owners of Earl Fashion, has a great amount of experience in development projects for garment workers. She first started engaging in this area in 1986 as a socio-economist for a Swedish group called Production and Employment Project. After two years there, she was working for UNFPA for five years, then finished a Master in Leeds in Health Management Planning and Policy. She is deeply passionate about women’s empowerment, and a female leader herself pioneering change for women across Bangladesh. She has worked for 26 years in national, international and UN organisations towards women’s empowerment and preventing violence against women.

We were introduced to Ms. Farzana through our advisor, Anna Troupe. Anna previously worked as the Head of the Fashion Department at BGMEA University of Fashion and Technology, and now serves as the Programme Director for AID (Association for India’s Development). She, too, is a strong advocate for women’s rights. She recently shared on Facebook with her students and friends that:

“All people are harmed by sexist ideas and I want to improve this for the better well-being of everyone. I want my male students to be able to value and benefit from the talented women in their lives. I want the garment factories to be able to utilise the potential of Bangladeshi women’s minds and spirits — not just their nimble fingers, tireless bodies, and willing dispositions. I want all women here to be recognised as worthy, able, valuable human beings beyond their sexuality and marriageability.”

This is also the philosophy that Lensational hopes to convey to our students through the training.

An encounter with a lasting impact

Photographer Mahbub Hossain explaining photography techniques

After the break we continued with the introduction to the basics of photography (e.g. framing, ISO, white balance etc.). The session was conducted by professional photographer Mahbub Hossain who shared his experience as a photographer and gave an overview of different techniques of photography. After that participants received their cameras to take photos in small groups.

The second workshop day focused on practising and implementing the lessons of the first day. We furthermore discussed the approach of themes, the selection of photos and how to caption selected photos.

We were impressed by the engagement and apparent talent of our students. Thanks to the continuous support of Ms. Farzana and Anna, we will be able to further engage with the workers who wish to learn photography — as a hobby but possibly even as a professional pursuit.

A photo taken by a garment worker symbolising purity and beauty
A portrayal of confidence

Selected photographs of the Bangladesh workshop will be featured in the upcoming exhibition “Unfurling Bangladesh” in London from 23 March until 2 April showcasing the world through their eyes and the connections they make through their cameras.

Samir Sakir Siddiqui, 18, is from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is currently studying Electrical and Communication Engineering at Brac University. Inspired by the mission of the Lensational, he joined the organisation in August 2015. The Lensational Bangladesh team is led by Mahbub Rahman, whom you can read more about here: http://fashionrevolution.org/fabric-of-the-nation/