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Fuel Smuggling by Sadegh Souri
From Fuel Smuggling, 2017Courtesy of © Sadegh Souri

The dangerous life of an illegal fuel smuggler on the Iran-Pakistan border

For over four years, photographer Sadegh Souri documented life inside one of the world’s harshest struggles of survival

"I’m the lord of Balochistan, I’m in desert day and night. Although I carry gasoline, don’t shoot at me, because I’m young.” In Iran, this slogan can be found on the back of vehicles trekking over the border between Iran and Pakistan. It refers to the lives of many young Iranians who are forced into illegal fuel smuggling as a means of survival. It’s a very dangerous process that sees the illegal extraction of fuel from Iran (that is very cheap) sold onwards for ten times the rate in Pakistan.

The issue is most prevalent in the country’s southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan, where more than 3,000 vehicles illegally move around 26.4 million gallons of fuel every month. For an agricultural region struggling with the effects of a drought, and therefore great unemployment, many families are forced to put their lives in grave danger in order to get money for food and water. Take Maryam as an example, her land was dried out by the drought, causing family to illegally smuggle fuel. Exposed to dangerous roads and violent police chases, she lost her husband and two sons as a result.

Understanding the impact the issue of unemployment is having on innocent people in Sistan and Baluchestan is photographer Sadegh Souri. He spent over four years photographing life inside illegal fuel smuggling communities in the area to produce his 2017 series, Fuel Smuggling. Souri took it as a cultural duty to take photos that would be so moving and would run off human empathy to generate change. By unveiling the suffering and struggle behind illegal fuel smuggling, Souri hopes the series will push the government to create more jobs in the area.

In light of Souri being included in Foam Talent 2017-18, the photographer walks us through how perilous life is as an illegal fuel smuggler:

“I knew this project was dangerous but I had to do it because the people of my province are involved in this high-risk business and it's an important issue.

“Take Abu Bakr (the man featured in the cover image), an illiterate farmer who lost his job due to drought and climate change. He then had to turn to fuel smuggling. When he was smuggling, his car was shot by the police three times and he survived every time. During the last shooting, four bullets hit his windshield.

“Every year a large number of people die or are injured. So I didn’t care about safety very much. What mattered to me was portraying these people. This was a dangerous project for two reasons. First, was the danger of fuel smugglers. When I first started the project, I had to get close to these tank trucks with my own car to take photos. Since my car was different, they thought I was a policeman so they would take defensive measures and let off a very thick smoke from their exhaust pipes – a trick that prevents the chasing driver from seeing because of its density. Sometimes the smoke overturns the chasing car. 

“Every year a large number of people die or are injured. So, I didn’t care about safety very much. What mattered to me was portraying these people” – Sadegh Souri 

“The second danger was that border police were onto me. Nobody is allowed to travel to the border areas unless they have a legal permit. Of course, none of the smugglers have permission – they must move secretly. The mountain roads in the area where fuel smugglers travel are extremely challenging to pass because they have dangerous winds. If the drivers lose their focus for a moment, it could cost them their lives. I also had to cross these roads. When the officers saw me in these areas, they sometimes confiscated my camera and all my equipment to inspect them. Sometimes they arrested me.

“Since I had anticipated these problems, I photographed with a camera that supported two memory cards. As soon as I saw the border police, I took out one out and hid it, and let the police break or erase the other memory card. At the time of the project, almost five of my memory cards were broken and seven were reformatted.

“At first, these people were not willing to cooperate with me – they felt it was too risky. They thought that I was there to spy on them by taking these photos and thought I would deliver them to authorities because fuel smuggling is a crime in Iran, and fuel smugglers are forced to pay heavy fines. Therefore, they were afraid of showing their faces, but given that I also live in this province, I was able to gain their trust by becoming their friend. I even made some good friends.

“As a human being, I want a world full of peace where there is no hatred, resentment, or discrimination. Helping these people could provide them with a new life” – Sadegh Souri

“Featured in the photos is a young man named Abdul Wahid. At 28, he has a bachelor's degree in agriculture. He has plenty of agricultural land but after the drought dried it out, he started smuggling fuel. Wahid says gasoline smuggling is good for its money but it’s a very difficult and dirty job. Wahid says if the Iranian government opened a factory or provided basic jobs here, he would have never tried smuggling – the government could definitely decrease problems by creating jobs in these areas.

“As a photographer, I am illustrating these problems. The officials must see them and change the lives of these people. At the moment, no specific solution is being offered for fuel smuggling. The job continues because there are no suitable mechanisms for surviving, and the drought is getting increasingly worse.

“I feel responsible to help the world and to portray the horrible things that happen to the people around me so that others can see these happenings. As a human being, I want a world full of peace where there is no hatred, resentment, or discrimination. Helping these people could provide them with a new life, such as the construction of a factory and investment in these areas by the government. Young people are a reason to eliminate fuel smuggling.”

Foam Talent London is on between May 16 – June 10 2018 at Beaconsfield Gallery Vauxhall. You can find out more information here