Story of the Photo: Pakistani Shipbreakers

Thursday, October 10, 2013

pakistani ship breakers

Back in 1998, I was doing a Fulbright in Pakistan.  The country was relatively safe at the time and I was able to roam freely. Without giving it a second thought, I’d jump onto local buses, hire a scruffy mountain horse or board a rusting PIA jet.  I got lots of looks and attracted crowds (even in Pakistani clothing, I stood out as a foreigner) but mostly people were curious and friendly and wanting to offer me a cup of sweet, milky ‘doudbatti’ tea.

I had heard about a ship breaking operation near Karachi, and a Pakistani friend helped me organize an excursion. When we got there I was greeted by the sight of a wide beach littered with the giant carcasses of cargo ships. Pakistani workers scurried like ants over the massive structures, tearing them apart with hammers and torches, chains and bare hands. Everything of value was stripped from the ships-- wood paneling, wiring, old clocks-- and then all the metal was chopped apart and sold for scrap. It was grueling work in the blazing sun, and contrary to my usual experience in Pakistan, the men lacked the surplus energy to pay me any attention. They just attacked the ships with grim determination.

The men in this photo were banging away at a mammoth ships propeller. I was told that the metal was too thick to cut with a welder, so they had to take it apart with hammers and wedges, as if they were splitting a log.

Ten years later, I returned to Pakistan to photograph the presidential elections, and things were very different. This was after journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered in Karachi, and of course after 9-11. The looks I got out on the street seemed to hold some hostility.  I took a guide with me everywhere I went, never stayed in one place for too long, and only went out to shoot.  No more wandering the bazaars for fun, no more cups of tea with rug merchants or 15 cent street shaves. I’m glad I got to see Pakistan when I did, as I doubt it will be an easy place to travel anytime soon.

Posted by Dennis on 10/10 at 10:10 PM