Photographer Interviews

Jošt Franko Captures The Human Cost of Cheap Cotton Clothes

April 3, 2017

By Martha T. Moore

Like many 20-somethings, photographer Jošt Franko shops at cheap-chic clothing retailers like the global chain H&M. Unlike most other shoppers, however, Franko knows the worldwide human cost of the clothes we buy: African children growing and picking cotton, textile workers in substandard conditions earning subsistence wages. Franko’s photo series, “Cotton Black, Cotton Blue,’’ published in December in The Nation, follows the “global journey of cotton’’ from the fields of Burkina Faso to the textile mill in Dhaka, Bangladesh to the factory floor in Sibiu, Romania.

The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, which killed more than 1,000 workers, focused world attention on conditions in the Bangladesh garment industry. But Franko, a 23-year-old photographer from Slovenia, wanted to document the entire supply chain of clothing.

“I’ve always been intrigued by stories that are less seen and not covered,’’ says Franko. “Looking at [subjects] as a photographer and as a human being are intertwined. I usually seek projects that speak to me on a human level.’’

© Jošt Franko/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

A clothing retail store in London. Consumers benefit from low prices, but not many understand the hidden costs to people in other countries who process cotton and manufacture clothing under difficult conditions, and for low wages. © Jošt Franko/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

The comprehensive scope of the project appealed to editors at The Nation, which licensed the story after Franko completed it. “The globally interconnected nature of the economy is sometimes so difficult to tease out,’’ says multimedia editor Frank Reynolds. “This is not just a photo essay about a topic, this is a photo essay about something that everyone is involved in. Everyone uses cotton. I think there was a real visceral reaction to it.’’

The story has also appeared in the Japanese edition of Newsweek, the Slovenian magazine Delo and, soon, in the Danish magazine Udvikling.

Franko’s photographs show how the work of producing cotton clothing consumes the lives of those involved in the process. In one, a young boy walks through a room scattered with cotton. “It seems like a fairytale—like a boy walking on the clouds. It shows everything I wanted to show with the project,’’ Franko says. “Their lives are literally filled with [cotton]’’—even inside their homes, since crop storage areas are often inside workers’ houses.

Another image shows two nearly identical women at work in a textile mill, the drudgery of their jobs having robbed them of individuality. “The reality of their lives and their work—they do the same thing every day to the point that they look like twins.’’

The idea for the project occurred over coffee, as Franko and Slovenian journalist Meta Knese discussed the effects of globalization on workers and the relentless search by manufacturers for the cheapest labor. The Rana Plaza collapse had drawn attention to Bangladesh, but Franko wanted also to show factories in Romania, right at Europe’s “back door.’’

“Garment workers there earn less than in China,’’ he says. “Which no one really talks about but is extremely troubling.’’

Franko and Knese funded their travel with a $12,000 grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Pulitzer Center senior editor Tom Hundley, who was the first reviewer of the grant application the pair filed in November 2015, says: “This struck me as a really direct, comprehensive, straightforward way of telling this story and showing people who were affected by it.’’

He adds, “I was just so struck by the quality of the photography…[Franko] doesn’t just make attractive pictures – he seems to have a real feel for telling a story with the pictures. One situation that he photographed led to another. There was a logic to it.’’

Franko spent a full year on research: reading everything he could find on the places he planned to visit, “not only academic writing and newspaper articles written by fellow Westerners but local novels and everything I could get my hands on.’’

Research didn’t prepare him fully for the reality of West Africa. Working in the scorching heat of Burkina Faso was “pretty rough. I’ve never traveled in such poor areas. It was a bit of a cultural shock.’’ Working with a driver and translator, the two journalists never knew from day to day where they would spend the night —and took a tent with them just in case. “We basically just went from village to village talking to farmers.’’ Worse, Franko came down with a bad fever. But to capture the cotton harvest, “It was either work or wait for another year.’’

© Jošt Franko/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Cotton farmers in Burkina Faso. “I’ve always been intrigued by stories that are less seen and not covered,” Franko says. © Jošt Franko/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

For American eyes, Franko’s images of African children picking cotton are historically fraught. Although the children work only after school, cotton’s history as an American slave crop “was always at the back of my mind,’’ Franko says. What strikes him is “the never ending exploitation in the sector, which I absolutely read as de facto contemporary slavery and [colonialism].’’

Reynolds, Franko’s editor at The Nation, liked the dose of reality. “I think Americans tend to think that the global supply chain resembles a [Chinese] Foxconn [iPhone] factory where everything is clean and tidy,’’ he says. “To see people picking cotton with their hands is kind of a shock.’’

In Bangladesh and in Romania, Franko and Krese could not gain access as journalists to the garment factories. They tried bribes, and eventually, posed as middlemen for an overseas buyer. “We tried to get in through all the formal ways,” says Franko, who adds that undercover reporting is ethically acceptable “if there’s really no other way around it, and there wasn’t.’’ There has been a campaign to improve safety and conditions in factories selling to Western clothes retailers, with mixed results. The conditions they found weren’t bad, he says, but the wages were: $67 a month.

Franko used a digital Leica with a 35mm lens throughout the project. He tried to edit his images after visiting each of the three countries, but once he had finished traveling, he reviewed everything again. “I saw things a bit differently then. I found some images that I missed during the first several times I went through them.’’ And he says that instead of “editing through a feeling of how the images flow,’’ his editing was constrained by the chronology of the story. “That was extremely frustrating. Editing always is.’’

At the same time, he was coping with the emotional impact of the story. “When you work, it absorbs you, but when I get home it starts to hit me,’’ he says. “The whole situation, how these people lived, were beyond my comprehension.’’ The people he photographed were surviving on an amount of money many of us spend without a second thought, he explains.

What disturbs him most about the poverty he documented, he says, is the lack of clear solutions. “I honestly don’t see a way out of it,’’ he says. As workers in Bangladesh pointed out to him, he says, a consumer boycott of clothing retailers would simply mean lost jobs for them. “They would lose everything,’’ Franko says. “I’m not here to find a solution, but that sometimes gets on your nerves.”

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