Published: May 2014
Tea Breakers

Each afternoon, with the sun slipping toward the horizon, photographer Mike Hettwer would hurry from Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards to a teahouse where workers gathered for their evening break. “I noticed this golden light that would gradually descend the wall for just a few minutes,” he says. The men seemed to bask in it, lingering over the last of their sweet tea before returning to the job at hand: dismantling derelict ships, using little more than acetylene torches and their bare hands.

“When I started photographing in the yards, I was impressed by the spectacle of massive ships being demolished,” says Hettwer. “But I soon realized the heart of this story is these men who risk their lives for little more than a couple dollars a day.” During several trips over six years, he followed them into the oil-slick bowels of tankers and through the pitch-black passages of cargo ships. But his most intense experience was feeling the shock wave when a ship exploded nearby and rushing to the scene. “The owners had sealed off the yards, but from a distance I could see workers frantically carrying the bodies of their friends out of the smoking wreckage.” —Peter Gwin