Alexander Walker

A female tea plucker working in one of the vast tea fields on the estate. The women are expected to pick 23kg per day and work a 6 day week. Traditionally this is a lowly paid job dominated by women.

Alexander Walker interviewed by Samantha Manchee

Alexander Walker is a London based freelance photojournalist. His work focuses on inequality amongst many different societies. His need to use photography as a tool came from a young age, growing up with parents who themselves enjoyed the photojournalist greats. Even though his career has only just begun after graduating with First Class honours degree in photojournalism from Falmouth University he has touched many communities with his photographic gaze.

One of the field workers being given her daily wages. Workers are paid on a weekly basis but their typical earnings are the equivalent of US $2 per day although some unscrupulous plantations in the north of the country pay less than minimum wages.

What drew you to become a photojournalist?

I think when I was growing up my parents were always really keen on photography. I was always playing around with a camera no matter what kind of camera they had. Whether it was my first jungle themed camera when I was five, to when the first digital cameras’ first came out. I’d always be snapping away trying to find things to photograph on holidays.

My parents were always really keen on photojournalism so we had Larry Burrows and Don McCullin books, the real legacy photojournalist’s books around the house or on the coffee table. I’d always been looking at those and always fascinated by the dynamic and the connection you can make through photographs.

In one of the books I remember, ‘century’ which had pictures from the whole of the last century, everything you could possibly imagine. If I had to think of something that would have been a reason to be a photojournalist that would have been the instigator for it.

I think now I just like the ability to tell someone’s story that doesn’t have the voice to tell it themselves and raise awareness for issues that I think are of merit or aren’t getting enough attention in the world’s stage. I’d like to think in doing the work that I do it’s making a difference somewhere or someone’s listening or reading it.

Lalitha, a factory worker sorts the freshly dried leaves in one of the many large drying troughs. Unlike the field work, which is dominated by women, the manufacturing process employs both males and females on an equal wage structure introduced by Kerala state law.

Can you tell me the process you had to take with the project from start to finish? From the idea to end product.

The reason I did the project was my grandparents had loads of old slides from India, there was one summer I was sorting through all of the pictures and I saw a lot of pictures of tea estates and general India.

That kind of sparked the thought of doing more research, I think it started as general curiosity as to how the tea industry worked and then I stumbled across the story I wanted to do and the particular area I wanted to go to.

I think once I’d done that I started putting feelers out to who would be ok with me visiting an estate. I set out what I wanted to achieve, it was a game of bouncing emails off people for a couple of months.

When things were looking good I booked flights and arranged some local fixers to help me get from A to B and translations.

I was in India for just under a month in the smallest village I think I have ever been in. I made a point not to leave this village pretty much for the whole month because I wanted to become part of the furniture.

In the second or third week I could blend in to the background, having the time to do that really helps. You can have the time to really get to know your subjects.

A girl from 10th standard takes an exam in her classroom at the Roman Catholic High School. The estate provides scholarships for those over the age of 14 to remain in school and obtain a good education. Additional incentives are provided for girls such as giving them bicycles, and other school accessories. Historically Muslim girls tended not to extend their education after this age, however these improvements have enabled this group to remain in education for longer and seek higher status employment.

Did you become quiet close with the subjects?

I did, there were a few key people I focused on. The women I followed most as a case study was a lady called Bavani.

It was quite difficult because the local language MaliAllen, doesn’t have letters like we have here, it’s a completely different alphabet. It wasn’t something I could learn before I went because I didn’t know how anything sounded.

So talking was quiet difficult, a lot of it was through hand signals or laughing at funny things that were going on. When I had the translator I could catch up on everything I wanted to ask them. But I did build a great bond with the people I was photographing.

It’s on my agenda to go back at some point soon, I’d love to go back and see if things got better or worse.

Sister Joshma finishes addressing the morning assembly at the Roman Catholic Lower Primary school (RCLP) before leading the children back to the classroom. Estate workers children, like their older brothers and sisters at the high school, are provided with free uniforms and bags from the tea estate as part of the welfare benefits. This alleviates the pressure financially for many of the workers, especially women, as they are lowly paid.

What message did you want to get across to people through this series?

I think the thing that drew me to it, its quiet a large company who is so vested in their work force.

The thing I found most fascinating for business sense they are doing is absolutely brilliant. They are promoting education within their workforce’s children, they are subsidising education giving huge welfare benefits.

Their business model for the last however long is basically relying on labor and local workforce, the women and the men specifically the women are becoming more educated. They are losing their workforce. They are having to switch to migrant labor and invest in more mechanised processes.

I think the overall message is looking at an ethical side, not just financial side. Again it’s the juxtaposition a lot of the time when you think of woman’s rights in India, especially in the tea industry you’d think they are pretty appalling because in the northern regions they’re not great.

I think the message I was hoping to show the juxtaposition, these women are cared for brilliantly. They have equal pay with their male counterparts, the literacy rate with the new generation is 93% as apposed to 30% in the 1950’s.

The human development index in terms of education and life expectancy is more then some developing countries.

People reading this and seeing this story going into it with the idea that it’s going to be about really crappy conditions, reading that this is a company and area that really care for their workers.

It will hopefully draw peoples’ attention to the areas that are less fortunate.

Sifanath helps Manshiedh (3 years old) into a pyjama shirt for his afternoon nap. The children at the nursery are provided with both a morning snack and lunch during the day as the majority of the parents’ work from 8am to 4:30pm, six days a week regardless of weather.

What projects do you have coming up?

I’m just searching now for my next documentary project that I want to do. Something that is drawing my attention at the moment is gender equality in the military.

A lot of the work I have been doing recently is women rights and gender equality. With military in Britain this year they have opened up all its positions to women in the military, which is really interesting.

The area I’m hoping to look at is the Israeli military, they take a lot of flack for potentially other things they do. I guess a spearhead movement in equality. They have mixed gender battalions of men and women fighting a long side each other, it’s not even a thought that it wouldn’t be the case.

Bavani (39 years) makes her way home after a days work in the fields. The women work on extremely humid conditions with temperatures usually in the high 30 degrees Celsius. Their clothing is to protect their head from the weather and also protect their backs from the heavy loads they have to carry during the day.

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