The photo story shows the human cost of sandblasting in the jeans industry in Turkey, one of the world’s biggest exporters of jeans. Sandblasting, which gives jeans a worn look, is done by workers using compressors to blow sand under high pressure at jeans. In Turkey the practice was widespread until banned in 2009 when doctors diagnosed silicosis in former textile workers. Although the danger of silicosis has been known for a long time, especially in the mining industry, Turkey was the first country where the disease was diagnosed in textile workers.
Silicosis is an incurable and often deadly disease. It’s caused by inhalation of silica dust generated during sandblasting. While working on average twelve hours a day and six days a week in unventilated workshops wearing only a disposable mask, workers were exposed intensively to silica dust. Many became ill very rapidly, sometimes after a few months of labor. The disease is irreversible and progresses even when exposure to silica dust ends.
Until now approximately fifty persons have died and about twelve hundred have been diagnosed with silicosis. But medical experts fear that more than five thousand persons are affected. Most of the men that worked in the sandblasting workshops in Istanbul came from poor areas in Eastern Turkey or from poor neighbouring countries.
The Turkish ban on sandblasting does not put an end to the problem. When workshops closed in Turkey, production was moved to other countries like Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and Egypt. In these countries workers are still largely unaware of the deadly risks and are prone to misdiagnosis when they become ill. Western demand for denim with a worn look is high and although several international labels have publicly « banned » sandblasting from their production process, the technique continues to be used by manufacturers producing for Western brands. The jeans companies’ ban on sandblasting often exists only on paper. Most companies do not have their own factories and sub-contract the work, creating a supply chain that is often very poorly controlled. Designs that are almost impossible to create with an other method and deadlines that are hard to meet, push sub-contractors to continue to use the sandblasting technique. Workers keep on paying for a fashion whim with their lives.
By documenting the lives of former sandblasting workers suffering from silicosis and their families in Istanbul, this photo essay wants to show the disastrous effects of sandblasting.