Déjà vu – images of sweatshop disaster

When New Yorkers woke up on Sunday morning March 26, 1911 they were greeted, if you can call it that, by the terrible images of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that we discussed yesterday – horrid, raw, and heartbreaking.  “Never again!” people shouted and, as we discussed, this led to serious reform in the garment trade.  Or was it merely to outsourcing?

When we woke up this past Wednesday (April 24, 2013) – that’s 102 years later – still reeling from the Marathon Bombing news, we were greeted by the headline (this from CNN) “Bangladesh building collapse kills at lest 123, injures more than a thousand.”  An overcrowded garment industry sweatshop had literally crumbled in Bangladesh.

Take a look at these images from NBC News.  Again horrid, raw, and heartbreaking. They take us back again to March of 1911 and to lessons never really learned.  A haunting aspect of such photographs is that they bring associations to mind.  That is what images are meant to do.  You hear briefly the songs of 1911 – songs like “Daisy Bell, A Bicycle Built for Two.”  – “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.  I’m half crazy over the likes of you.”   This is the music of young love and premature death.  I can also hear the jingle: “Look for the Union label,” from the ILGWU in the ’70’s.

Terrible photographs and events like this invariably raise in my mind literary quotations.  In this case it is Dickens’ confrontation between Scrooge and the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

We see in this this the power of image to raise social consciousness and, in a sense, to break down barriers of time, place, and culture.  They unite us in our common humanity.  To the people “Uptown” in 1911, the garment workers were invisible.  They wanted cheaper clothing, and it was easy to look away.  The message of these powerful images (both those of 1911 and those of 2013) is that we need to look beyond the price tag, when buying clothing, indeed when buying anything.  We need to see the invisible minions, and we need to ask who really pays the price?


This entry was posted in History of Photography.