Friday, November 16, 2012

A Heavy Load to Bear

A worker in a rice warehouse in Pathum Thani, Thailand, prepares to throw a sack of rice into place in a warehouse. The sack weighs about 100 kilos (about 220 pounds). 

One of the things I love about being a photojournalist is that it's a passport into the lives of others. Sometimes they're politicians, celebrities or athletes; people used to being in the public eye. They usually have a public face they put on for us. The best photographers have a way of cutting through that public face to show us the real person, but as people become better at manipulating the media and publishers increasingly don't mind being manipulated if it saves them money, it's getting harder and harder to do that. 

Working as a photojournalist also gives me a passport into the lives of regular people. I enjoy these assignments a lot more (although I do like covering politics and politicians when I have the time and access to do it properly). This week I worked on a story about rice in Thailand. One of the sort of themes of my work has been food and where it comes from. I like working on stories about agriculture and food production and hanging out with farmers and workers. 

We drove out to Pathum Thani, a province north of Bangkok, Thursday to visit a rice warehouse and find rice farmers.

The warehouse was nearly full with government owned rice (the Thai government is buying up much of the rice crop in an effort to run up the price) and workers were busy unloading trucks and stacking sacks of rice. As soon as one truck was emptied another took its place and a seeming never ending stream of rice was brought into the warehouse. Workers with long hooks pulled the large sacks out of the trucks and heaved them onto the conveyor belts that took the rice to the upper reaches of the warehouse where the really hard took place. 

Men (all of the workers at the top were men) collected the back breaking bags from the conveyor belt, carried them to the right spot on the pile and threw the sacks into place. And just as a reminder, these "sacks" of rice weighed about 100 kilos a piece - that's nearly 220 pounds. 

I scrambled across the top of the pile of rice, trying to stay out of their way while I photographed. Technically, it was hard to photograph in the warehouse. It was dark (I had to photograph a lot of it at ISO 3200) and dusty. It was stiflingly hot and humid. 

As difficult as the photography was though, it couldn't compare with what these men were doing. 

I meet a lot of people in the course of my job, and I photograph a lot of people at work in the course of my job.

Many times when I'm done, I say to myself "I could do that." I might not want to do it but I could do it.

Sometimes when I'm done, I say to myself, "that was cool, I would like to do that." 

Sometimes when I'm done, I say to myself, "there is no way I could do that." 

I don't care how difficult I think my life is, when I visit a place like the rice warehouse in Pathum Thani, I am reminded that I'm incredibly lucky to have a job I enjoy doing and that I can do. The rice warehouse workers labor long hours at low pay under incredibly difficult and dangerous conditions. That is a job I simply could not do.

In general, I find agricultural work of any kind - be it as a farm or ranch worker or a food warehouse worker - to be incredibly hard work that's not appreciated by the public at large who simply want their food as fresh and cheap as possible. 

A rice farmer takes a break in the shade of a truck parked on the edge of his paddy. He's 79 years old. 

After we finished in the warehouse we drove through the countryside looking for workers in rice fields. 

The stereotypical western view of rice production in Asia is that it's done by people wearing conical hats crouched over rice plants with carabao (water buffalo) grazing nearby or doing the work of beasts of burden. 

In some parts of Asia rice is still grown the traditional way. Thailand isn't one of those places. Rice farming in Thailand is big business. It's as mechanized as agriculture in the United States. Fields are prepped with automatic tillers and rice is harvested with large threshing machines. 

Some steps are still done with manual labor, like transplanting baby rice plants into larger paddies. The baby plants are too delicate to withstand mechanized handling, but most rice work in Thailand is done by machines. 

When we found the workers, we rode out to the fields on their tractor. We watched them harvest with a large, colorful thresher. Later, at another farm, we watched workers on bizarre skid like devices aerating fields before planting. Not too long ago, we would have watched workers harvesting rice by hand; 15 or 20 workers from the community all helping harvest each other's rice. Now one thresher was working the entire paddy. Not too long ago, carabao would have pulled the aerators. Now a strange looking tractor based machine did it in a fraction of the time.  

Really not that different from the way wheat is grown on the Great Plains of the United States. Mechanization has changed Thai agriculture just as it's changed American agriculture. 

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