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Remnants of Dutch sugar factories

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series highlighting six photographers who were commissioned by the Dutch photography organization Noorderlicht to produce “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar.” The project examines globalization by looking at the sugar industry in the Netherlands and its former colonies.

While photographing the ruins of abandoned sugar factories at night, Alejandro Chaskielberg would sometimes spend hours waiting for the moon to line up for his shot.

“That gave me time to imagine those places in full operation in the past,” he says. “I hope that part of the mystery I felt there may have permeated the pictures.”

Changes in the global economy over the years led to the decline of sugar production and trade in the Netherlands and Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the northern coast of South America.

Chaskielberg, an Argentinian photographer, documented the remnants of the sugar industry in the two countries last year. He took pictures of a dozen former factories at night, leaving the shutter on his camera open for up to 30 minutes.

“In some images I used the moonlight, combining it with lanterns or hand flashlights,” he says. “It is a pretty physical job and one of trial and error.”

Chaskielberg would wake up early to load his film and make arrangements with the locals. To reach some of the locations in Suriname, he had to ride a boat down the Commewijne River and haul his equipment through the jungle.

“By the time of the night shooting, we were already tired – just when the most exciting part of the day would start,” he says. “We would return at dawn with hundreds of mosquito bites.”

In the 17th century, the demand for sugar increased rapidly in Europe, and production overseas was sustained by the African slave trade. Suriname later brought in contract workers from British India and the Indonesian island of Java.

Javanese descendants who used to work at one of the factories now act as tour guides. The buildings are overgrown with vegetation, and some of the old machinery has been stolen or sold as scrap metal.

“Practically no factory has been preserved after the downfall of the sugar industry in the ‘80s,” Chaskielberg says. “There is no public policy to safeguard the industrial heritage."

The sugar industry has all but disappeared in Suriname, and the Netherlands may be facing a similar fate after being hit by agricultural regulations and the free market.

Witnessing the transformations inspired the Dutch photography organization Noorderlicht to work with Chaskielberg and five other international photographers to explore the global ramifications of the rise and fall of sugar production.

Project coordinator Sjors Swierstra says sugar revolutionized world commerce.

“We feel that if you want to understand the present-day global economy or globalization process, it’s important to understand the past.”

- Brett Roegiers, CNN