In the stills gallery of Manufactured Landscapes, Burtynsky tells of how he tried to get permission to shoot in the largest ship breaking yard in the world in India and being denied because Greenpeace had gone in to shoot a few months before and used the images in a very negative dangers-of-shipbreaking campaign.

It’s interesting to compare Burtynsky’s arty film photos to Greenpeace’s (link above) more traditionally photojournalistic digital photos (at least they look digital to me). Burtysnky seems to focus on the composition of the these huge steel structures, and people are usually small figures. He talks apolitically about the economics of shipbreaking – how it’s cheaper to pay 100 men to carry a ropeline ($10) than to use a diesel engine and pulley ($15) to draw it in, and leaves you to come to your own conclusions. Greenpeace, on the other hand, puts the workers in the forefront, showing the dirty conditions in which they have to work. Their writing is full of drama and vitriol:

Through testimonies and pictures, the purpose of Childbreaking Yards is not only to denounce child labour but also to shed light on the socio-economic context that pushes children into one of the world’s most hazardous jobs. The report estimates that as many as one out of four workers on the shipbreaking beaches of Bangladesh are children.

Shipbreaking in South Asia is a dirty, degrading and extremely dangerous job. Wearing no protection, workers are exposed to hazardous substances such as asbestos, PCBs, heavy metals and oil residues. Accidents occur on a daily basis, leaving many workers severely injured. Death can come suddenly, from the crush of a falling steel plate or by being blown to bits when cutting torches set off residual fuels.

It’s very difficult for me to decide which approach is more effective in convincing people to take action.

Greenpeace certainly plays on our heart strings, but doesn’t mention that these people do these jobs willingly and there are probably hundreds more waiting in the eaves to take any open positions. Burtynsky does not touch the child labor issue – that even in Bangladesh child labor is illegal. Neither really address the larger sociological forces behind the poverty that drives people, children, to this kind of work, but I think Burtynsky is on the right track in encouraging us to think beyond the issue itself, to consider the larger context. If we took children out of the shipyards, would that really do anything to alleviate the poverty their families live in? Would they simply turn to some other form of hard labor? Is there any behaviors we can change in our lives to make a difference in the long run rather than just donating money to Greenpeace?

And then there is the effect these negative campaigns have. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing poverty and war in developing nations that I wonder some people haven’t become a bit desensitized to them.

And perhaps more importantly, demonizing the higher-up decision-makers instead of cooperating with them to solve the problem only alienates them and elicits a hostile defensive reaction. I don’t think we can successfully educate a person about a cause if they are feeling insulted and defensive. I once took a seminar in sustainability issues, and the moment I remember most vividly is an activist who spoke about her meeting with the director of a chemical plant.

She explained how unhealthy and damaging their run off was, and pointed out a few easy ways they could reduce their effects on the environment and ultimately people. He was receptive and had not known some of the things she spoke about. He also expressed surprise at how civil she was to him. Apparently he had take meetings with other activists who marched in and began calling him names, accusing him of being an evil person, without giving him a chance to explain his position and the company’s position. So of course he became irate ad defensive, having been insulted to his face, and no progress was made.

That sort of aggressive approach is counterproductive to the cause, since no other journalists will be able to obtain permission to shoot in the future, to bring more of these sad conditions to light. The issue suffers in the long run. On the other hand, it seems intuitive that the Greenpeace approach is more emotionally powerful and gets contributions in the short term. After all, it is much harder to convince people to permanently change their lifestyle and behavior for people on the other side of the Earth. Is it possible at all, or should we be content to extract a few dollars here and there for the appropriate organizations? Should we trust every such organizations to spend the money efficiently?

I have always assumed that humanitarian organizations are good at doing the right thing, but now I wonder if I shouldn’t be more skeptical.


~ by Jin on October 24, 2008.

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