No rich without the poor

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Tales from a Globalizing World. Edited by Daniel Schwartz. Thames amp; Hudson pound;19.95

Whatever the situation, there is always money to be made. Sean Lang finds out how the lives of the two nations are entwined

It was Disraeli who coined the phrase "The Two Nations" to describe the social and economic gulf that separated the rich from the poor in Victorian England. Apart from the occasional rough sleeper outside the opera, rich and poor can still appear to inhabit different planets. But it wasn't true in Disraeli's time, and it's not true now. Without the poor there would be no rich, and vice versa.

Tales from a Globalizing World seeks to underline the point through a series of photographic essays focusing on a set of apparently unconnected case studies. We start with a growing Chinese metropolis on the Pearl River Delta and end with a religious cult in Brazil, having taken in Belgian workers, child prostitutes in India and Nepal, Bosnian villagers, and American townsfolk along the way.

The linking thread is globalisation, all too often in the familiar form of ruthless economic exploitation of the vulnerable by the ever-expanding demands of the affluent. The city of Guangzhou is growing rapidly and aims to supplant Hong Kong as China's financial centre, but its growth comes from the unremitting work of peasants who drift in to work long hours in Dickensian - or Disraelian - squalor.

Welcome, not to the friendly global village, but to the 21st-century global city complete with sweatshops and slums. Take that quintessential urban luxury phenomenon, the fashion industry, the original source of the terms "pin money" and "sweatshop". Behind the glitzy catwalks of Milan or Paris there is now a shadow fashion industry operating, like its legal counterpart, on a truly global scale. Even before they are announced, designs are copied by backstreet operators in Naples, made up in workshops in China, and sold on the streets by illegal immigrants from the villages of Senegal who charge a fraction of the $13,000 (pound;7,600) some people are apparently prepared to pay for a designer handbag they might use once.

Maybe this trade in fakes is the world poor's way of hitting back at the rich, but it still results in the same sweatshops and migrants living and working just one step ahead of the law.

Belgium is the fourth wealthiest country in the world, but wealth hasn't made it the fourth happiest. One of the most absorbing picture essays in the book is a remarkable series of black and white portraits by Stephan Vanfleteren of some of the have-nots of this consumer culture: Johnny the alcoholic Elvis impersonator, Astrid the ailing transsexual. These are the faces of the underclass, the people we would rather not see.

An essay from Paris puts them in a revealing context: Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen simply visited immigrant workers in their tower blocks and tenements and took photos of their family snaps from home, propped up on the mantelpieces. So we see a wedding photo from Morocco, a Kosovan soldier posing in his uniform, a smiling family group from Mali, a footballer from Brazil. They're all "immigrants" now, yet somehow through these mundane snaps they regain dignity and personality. But without this book, how many of us would see it?

It was European colonialism which set the scene for today's globalisation.

The northern frontiers of India, where once British and Russian agents played the imperial Great Game and tweed-jacketed George Mallory set off nonchalantly to scale Everest, now provide prime pickings for the child trafficker and the pimp. One striking photo shows a poor woman from a Nepalese hill village posing with her family. She blames herself for persuading her daughter to go to Kathmandu to seek work. Eventually the daughter came home dying of Aids; her work had been in a brothel in Bombay.

The other children are all too likely to end up the same way, victims of our new slave trade.

Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi's essay captures an unusual by-product of the original slave trade: the colourful Orisha cult, a hybrid of the native religion of west Africa and the Christianity of the European slavers, now flourishing in Brazil.

America, originally built upon the transatlantic slave trade, once prided itself on its image as the home of oppressed and disadvantaged people from around the world, but its 21st-century equivalent is much less happy about it. The Mexican traveller in Thomas Kern's photo, wheeling his worldly goods in a handcart along the Interstate 25, is heading back to Mexico, disillusioned by the American dream. You soon see why. In Flint, Michigan, the Dollar General discount store has gone, and alongside the small parade to commemorate the victims of 911 graffiti on the sidewalk proclaims "there was and is no country named America on this planet".

Vietnam, on the other hand, has recovered from its war with America by embracing American consumer culture. Advertisers promote not only western fashions but even western facial characteristics, and young Vietnamese use the freedom their parents won for them to sew American footwear together to sell to the sons and daughters of the GIs their Vietcong forebears fought.

War produces some of the oddest links between humans. The Dutch, who so tragically failed to protect the people of Srebrenica, have built homes for the survivors, while the factory compound which housed the Dutch peacekeepers and where the townspeople vainly sought safety from the Serbs back in 1995, was opened in 2003 to take their coffins. Victims of Angola's bloody civil war, many of them maimed by the mines which still litter the countryside, learn to walk with artificial limbs through sports programmes run by the Red Cross.

Kenya has proved the unlikely setting for a big resurgence of the Japanese martial art Tae kwon do, while Liberia starts the post-war healing process through a passion for football. One of the relatively few heartening pictures in the book is of the Liberian Millennium Stars, all ex-combatants from opposing sides of the civil war, waving goodbye to their hosts, the Liverpool youth team, at the end of their first foreign visit. They are part of our story, and we are part of theirs.

Sean Lang is editor of Modern History Review

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