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Death of A Thousand Dreams – RANA PLAZA collapse
Photography Talisma Akhter

Taslima Akhter: the photographer who watched Rana Plaza collapse

Ten years on, photo series Death of A Thousand Dreams is a painful reminder of the deadliest disaster in fashion history

On April 24 2013, an eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh caved in on itself, leaving 1,134 workers dead and more than 2,500 injured. The tragic events of Rana Plaza were entirely avoidable, and ten years on, the collapse serves as the consummate reminder of the human costs bound up in fast fashion. As survivors campaign for April 24 to be declared a national day of mourning and fashion activists protest the industry’s continued mistreatment of garment workers, we map the legacy of Rana Plaza and the work still required to redesign a fashion system that feeds on exploitation. Should you be unable to attend demonstrations in person, a list of petitions and relief funds can be found here.

Taslima Akhter feels we all have a duty to work in solidarity with garment workers in whatever way we can. She lists poetry, performance, and academic research among the many valid ways each of us can play our part. “I decided to follow their life and struggle with my lens,” the documentary photographer and activist says.

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which is at the heart of the garment making industry, Akhter describes her younger self as a student activist. “I thought that if we want to change society, we have to engage ourselves with the working class people,” she says. “When I was a student, I followed a new labour force emerging within the garment sector and at that time it was encouraging for me that more than 80 per cent were female workers. But I saw that a large number of women [were] coming from rural India, and they were struggling to survive in a city they didn't know that much.”

“I think it is important to be a witness. I was [at Rana Plaza] as a photographer, and as an activist also, because it was really impossible sometimes for us to take photos. When the collapse happened, there were family members, care workers everywhere, everybody was around the factory, they were crying, they were shouting, and moving from one place to another to find that person” – Taslima Akhter

From 2008, Akhter set out to form a relationship with these “young and courageous” women, attending protests and meeting with them to hear their stories. By the time the Rana Plaza factory collapse happened on April 24, 2013, Akhter was already well aware of the difficulties and dangers garment workers faced, documenting their long hours, poor pay, and dangerous working conditions. “I wanted to be an artist by drawing and making handicraft but my dream is now ruined under the [needle] of machine, under the rubble and sometimes by fire”, says Lija, one of the women whose lives she followed in her earlier work. 

Just five months before Rana Plaza, Akhter was at the scene of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed at least 112 workers. She photographed rescue efforts, inconsolable survivors, rows of bodies, and the IDs of missing workers, so the wider world could see what happened. She understood how crucial her role in documenting the aftermath of Rana Plaza would be too. “I think it is important to be a witness. I was there as a photographer, and as an activist also, because it was really impossible sometimes for us to take photos. When the collapse happened, there were family members, care workers everywhere, everybody was around the factory, they were crying, they were shouting, and moving from one place to another to find that person. So I tried to take photos at the same time as organising our activists. That’s how we can help rescuers and help wounded workers or make missing lists,” she says.

Even if you are not familiar with Akhter’s name, it’s very likely you have seen her photographs. The images that came out of Rana Plaza, published under the title Death of A Thousand Dreams, showed the grim reality of the collapse. Family members are surrounded by body bags, comforting each other after finding their relatives among them, mothers clutch photos of their children waiting for DNA tests to see if they are among the dead, and survivors are freshly pulled from the rubble or laid in hospital with missing limbs.

One image in particular was shared the world over: Final Embrace. It’s almost impossible to look at. A man in a blue shirt, covered in dust and crushed by bricks and steel hugs the woman next to him tightly. Her face is covered but her floral dress and gold bangle offer a hint at the person she was. 

“I remember after a few months, I shared that photo on Facebook and tagged some of my friends. One of my friends asked me why we're sharing this kind of pain. I replied to him that I feel a responsibility to spread this pain to all because I think all of us are responsible,” Akhter says. “Those photos are not so beautiful that you can hang [them] on your wall. Any survivors, they don't want to hang that photo because it’s not easy to take. But I think all of them agreed that those photos became a protest against the Rana Plaza collapse.” Final Embrace was selected by Time as one of the top ten photos of the year in 2013.

It wasn’t just the emotive nature of Akhter’s work which was crucial. Along with her archive of stories of workers’ struggles, it became evidence during a time when those culpable were trying to twist the narrative. “Some people and the mainstream media wanted to say that it was an accident, but we think it’s not an accident but a structural killing. Owners and brands don’t take garment workers as human beings, they think they are only profit-making tools. It’s important to spread this kind of photo to make [people] aware of the conditions,” says Akhter, who is also president of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity.

“Though the Bangladesh garment industry is a local industry, it’s actually not a local industry, it’s global, related with the global supply chain,” Akhter continues. “I think, after Rana Plaza, the whole world started to know about Bangladeshi garment workers. When our workers stitch t-shirts or other products, they are made in Bangladesh, then shifted to the western market. They need to know about the blood shed behind the t-shirt.”

Now, a month-long programme has been organised to mark the tenth anniversary of the disaster in Bangladesh, happening in conjunction with efforts around the world in countries including the UK, the US, Germany, and Austria. Activities span photographic exhibitions, protests at the Rana Plaza site, the creation of a list of the dead and the missing, and education for children who were born after the disaster. But the action isn’t just a memorial. It’s part of a wider, ongoing struggle to solve the root issues that caused Rana Plaza which still plague the fashion industry today. 

Ten years on, Akhter has seen some change. She says there are fewer big fires and collapses and more green factories. There is a plan to create a $100 million garment industry in Bangladesh. But Akhter believes this is happening without a consideration for workers’ wellbeings and workers’ lives. “We need to work for the proper minimum wage, and trade unions. Living conditions, safety, and wages are critical,” she says. “We have raised a call to remember the dead and fight for the living.”