Documenting a Drowning Culture
On Ashar Chor, a community struggles to keep tradition above water
Khaled Hasan just wanted to meet the people who make shutki, fish caught and dried by Bangladeshi tribal fishermen. But when he arrived at Ashar Chor, a small island in the Bay of Bengal, what the Dhaka-based documentary photographer actually found was far more poignant. As he writes in the project statement for Ashar Chor, a Vanishing Island, the island has become increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels and the cyclones that plague the area, weather that Hasan and climate scientists attribute to global warming. The entire community relies on the shukti trade and doesn’t want to leave the only home—and way of life—they know. Yet dwindling access to fresh water and land (due to rising sea levels), and the devastating Cyclone Sidr, which decimated a third of Ashar Chor’s population, have left many islanders bereft. "We used to think of the sea as the thing that gave us our living. Now we are scared that another cyclone like the last one will mean we will be washed away completely," fisherman Sharif Uddin told Hasan. "I don't know what to do if this happens again." For his part, Hasan photographed this vanishing culture as a way to document it and also bring awareness to the impact of climate change. “Being a visual artist and a very small part of the society, I tried to bring out the hardship and hassles they face everyday in their life,” he wrote.
Photos and captions by Khaled Hasan.
Photos and captions by Khaled Hasan.
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Each day in the early morning the dry fish workers start their work. Each fishing boat leaves the shore of Ashar Chor to fish for 15-20 days. When they come back, the work of the dry fish labor starts. They unload the fish from the fishing boats, and carry the fish inland in buckets to process and dry them.
Ashar Chor is a split of land marooned in the Bay of Bengal and situated in Bangladesh, a geographic location that is very much prone to natural disaster.
Buckets full of fishes are washed in the small sweet water pools to get them ready to finally dry. These are the same water pools which are used for drinking water by the dry fish labors.
Karim, 16 years old, helping his father to prepare his fish-catching boat.
Without any modern fish treatment plant, the bucket full of fish gets a quick rinse in the sweet water pools and the contents are laid on raffia mats to dry for five-to-six days.
After the fish are carried inland, they are laid under the sun on handmade raffia mats. Nets protect the fish from hungry birds.
Every day, six-year old Danesh catches fish and plays with his friends.
Ponkoj, a teenage laborer, came here to earn his living about five years ago and still working here.
The fishermen are getting ready for the next voyage by treating their fishing nets with a local wild fruit known to increase the nets’ resistence to saltwater.
Many laborers on Ashar Chor are children, although the practice is officially discouraged. Child workers earn about $0.56 per day.
Female workers also labor shoulder to shoulder alongside men, but are paid less.
During his long years of working here, Karim Ali (52 years old) had seen a lot. He says, “Once, one of my co-workers was kidnapped and never came back. I never know when it is going to happen to me, and we have no guarantee of life here.”
A plate found after Cyclone Sidr.
The government does not provide the Ashar Chor fishing community any cyclone shelters, nor are they undertaking any sanitation projects here, like those being carried out in other parts of the country. The community living on the island lives in shanty houses.
One side of the island is flooded every day at high tide. The tide water floods through the barriers and into fish farms and cultivated lands.
On Ashar Chor, the islanders use most of their space to dry fish.
It’s this young boy’s first year to work on the island drying fish. He works the season instead of going to school.
The fish are dried all day long. After sunset they are not taken off the drying fields to store because of the huge quantity.
Cyclones routinely destroy property, but the islanders still try to rebuild what they can, like these boats.
"I lived here more then 15 years. There is nothing left. I lost my family in Cyclone Sidr. Now only hope is my life." says 64-year old Shamsul Alam.
This middle-aged man, Yasin, has worked here for about 10 years. Initially, he only came to work seasonally, but now he has permanently settled here with his family. Yasin says, “My dream was to be a fish dealer, to be a mahajon (middleman), but I ended up as a dry fish laborer, still I know if I work hard I can own a boat and fulfill my dream.”
After the fishes are dried for four to five days they are stacked and are ready for supply to the market.
Surrounded by salty water, there is no sweet water supply for drinking near the island’s perimeter. Residents have to collect water from the sweet water pools far away inland and store them in their houses. Every early morning or at the end of a day, they carry their supply of drinking water.
After working the whole day, dry fish worker Sharif Uddin sits and relaxes, getting ready for another long hard day ahead.
The Red Cross believes that 900,000 families, roughly seven million people, were affected by Cyclone Sidr’s devastation. Of the total lives lost to Sidr, 40 percent are believed to be children. Many of the children that have survived are now orphans. This child lost his father in Sidr. Now he tries to make a home with broken plastics.
Night, with fear of seafaring robbers and kidnappers, brings little peace to the people of Ashar Chor.