CNN Photos

Sugar towns of yesterday

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.

Photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski arrived in Java, Indonesia, last year to document the sugar industry on the most populous island in the world. Its capital had everything a modern city would have – shopping malls, buildings topped with satellite dishes, streets packed with people on their phones.

But his destination was outside the modern metropolis. He passed through this world to the world of sugar factories still working on technology brought over from Holland 100 years ago.

“You felt like you were watching something that was highly sophisticated technology at the time,” Tomaszewski said.

The factories were full of positive people motivated to keeping the steel machines running and to keeping their jobs, he said, but everything was broken.

“You’re looking at something that is at the end of its life.”

Used to colder weather, the Polish photographer said it was physically challenging to keep up with the workers. They worked eight-hour shifts in temperatures of more than 100 degrees and high humidity among steel pipes with steam oozing out of the cracks.

He saw the annual festival that takes place before the production season, comprised of a parade, food and music. A bull and a cow were sacrificed, and their heads were placed on top of machines in the factory before they were buried in the ground to bring a good harvest.

Tomaszewski spent 21 days immersed in the Indonesian sugar culture before heading to the Vierverlaten sugar factory in Hoogkerk, Netherlands, where machines rather than hands powered the sugar production.

“If you were to close your eyes, there would be no way to tell where you were,” he said. The building was air-conditioned, there were no smells, and he put on a new helmet or gloves in each room. “It looked like a hospital.”

Unlike the factories in Java, Vierverlaten produced sugar from sugar beets, not sugar cane. He visited a field and saw a few tractors working rather than thousands of people.

Hoogkerk was an old city with a neighborhood built around it that housed factory workers before the world wars. Curious about the residents who have a view of the factory silos from their living room windows, he visited the people and found no active factory workers.

It was filled with retired workers and their families, but Tomaszewski said the small village was still very much alive at the start of harvest season.

- Lauren Russell, CNN

View last week’s post on the labor of sugar production.