Art Installation in a Bengali Slum: Susie Taylor’s ‘Dignity in Industry’

Susie Taylor (Freelance Photojournalist and founder of The Soulside Out)
and partner Jason Motlagh began researching and reporting on Bangladesh‘s garment
industry and the effects of ‘extreme working conditions and systemic
poverty on people’s lives’ in early 2013. The duo’s efforts culminated
in Dignity in Industry, a public art
exhibition installed in Dhaka’s largest slum in September 2013.

Dignity in Industry © Jason Motlagh
Dignity in Industry © Jason Motlagh

As many outside Bangladesh know, the garment industry in the
impoverished South Asian country is big business. To date, it is estimated that
at least 80% of the country’s exports come from this industry, with over 3.4
million employed. Beyond the country’s Tazreen Factory Fire in 2012 and the
collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, Taylor wanted to shine a light on the
fierce determination and strength of the women and girls who often toil long
hours with little pay and bring their images to the very locale which they call

Dignity in Industry © Jason Motlagh
Dignity in Industry © Jason Motlagh

A suitable setting for the public installation was just as important to
Taylor as the subject matter. Korail, a slum of approximately 200,000 people,
is home to many of Dhaka’s garment workers and their families. It is also
located across the river from two of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, which
was a crucial factor in the placement of the Rooftop Series images that look
up at the toney high-rises directly across the river.

Dignity in Industry © Shahria Sharmin
Dignity in Industry © Shahria Sharmin

Taylor called the project Dignity in Industry, to represent the beauty,
stamina and courageousness of those who work in the garment industry. Capturing
images of Korail’s residents, from ‘sweatshop grit
to breadwinner’ dovetailed nicely with the Inside Out Project’s directive to spotlight
marginalised people with full-sized black-and-white portraits hung within their

AKTER BEGUM, a phrase
associated with the project, represents the two most common surnames workers
use for employment documents as many often have only one given name and have no
official government paperwork. To respect the community and the environs around
it, each full-size image was made of PVC plastic, can be used to waterproof
structures in Korail and appropriated as needed.

For the installation, Taylor carefully culled images from a handful of talented
Bengali photographers (plus several images from herself and Motlagh) introduced
by Saiful Huq Omi via Counter Foto. Taylor shared the following information
about the artists who were chosen, ‘One of the
primary photographers who contributed the most was a woman named Shahria
Sharmin. She’s both brain and body. Her work is exceptional and she
pushes all the right buttons. She’s fearless. A leader. Andrew Biraj is internationally
known and his work is graphic – he doesn’t shield you from anything. You’ve
seen a lot of his work in major media outlets. Ashraful Alam Tito is a
rising star. Abu Sayed and Nowsher Roman are also really
incredible figures. It was tough to whittle it down to 22 prints.’

Dignity in Industry © Sharia Sharmin
Dignity in Industry © Sharia Sharmin

It is interesting to note that although traditional
Bengali crafts such as stitching and weaving have lost ground due to the
significant numbers of women who now work in the garment industry, Bangladesh has
a healthy number of photographers who are documenting important aspects of
contemporary life.

According to Taylor, ‘Photography is not new in Bangladesh, but
having a conservative social fabric means it’s not as ubiquitous as in America.
[The country has] some of the most driven and culturally relevant photographers
out there. It feels a bit like witnessing history as you see these
photographers coming up with incredible bodies of work. I think [this is] in
part because Dhaka is so raw, and the national growing pains so real, these
photographers are creating incredible commentary. They’re expressing
transgender movements, environmental destruction, greed, catastrophe and so on.
Nothing seems to hold them back.’

Dignity in Industry © Jason Motlagh
Dignity in Industry © Jason Motlagh

Another organisation involved with the installation was Dhaka’s JAAGO
, a youth-led organisation founded in 2007 that has introduced
education to the residents of Korail and works to eradicate poverty throughout
Bangladesh. JAAGO’s founder, Korvi Rakshand, generously found thirty volunteers
to assist during the installation.

Dignity in Industry © Susie Taylor
Dignity in Industry © Susie Taylor

Several months on, the project continues to
resonate with Taylor. ‘Dignity in Industry. It’s a beautiful idea, and it
should be the reality. The installation was our way of saying that ‘we see you’
and believe in you. I didn’t know that I was such a feminist until I met a few
Bengali women working in garments. They’re incredible, and quite literally the
backbone of their nation’s economy. They don’t complain, they’re freedom
fighters and they don’t quite realise it.”

By Lisa Pollman

Watch a video on ‘Inside Out Bangladesh:
Dignity in Industry’ produced by Susie Taylor and Jason Motlagh: