To Ashes

Behind the scenes of India’s tobacco industry

01 May 2015
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BEGINNING IN 1910, the German photographer and anthropologist August Sander took thousands of portraits of his compatriots as part of a series titled Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts—People of the Twentieth Century. Sander strove to create a sort of composite document of the society he lived in, and classified the portraits under seven categories: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (a variety of outcasts and vagabonds). After decades of work, he was interrupted by the Second World War, after which he largely gave up on photography. Though parts of the series were published, Sander never considered the project complete.

Sander’s simple documentary approach, of capturing people at work, in their own environments, serves as inspiration for the Italian photographer Rocco Rorandelli. Rorandelli lost his father, a heavy smoker, to cancer in 2007, and began to wonder if he could emulate the German’s style to take a close look at the tobacco industry. At the end of 2009, Rorandelli travelled to India, which is the world’s second-largest producer, and consumer, of tobacco. Travelling through Karnataka, he chronicled the many arms of the industry: the fields, the facilities where the plant is processed, a research centre working to improve the crop, and much else. At each stage, he focused less on the processes and more on the people involved, including farmers, truck drivers, tasters, wholesalers, shopkeepers and consumers.

Rorandelli found tobacco to be a mean plant, as unkind to its consumers as to many of those who prepare it for them. Tobacco rapidly depletes the soil it grows in, and is often planted alongside other crops, such as sorghum, that help replenish fields and reduce farmers’ economic dependency on the crop. Much of India’s tobacco goes to making bidis—a large but badly regulated industry, where workers are prevented from unionising, and endure brutal hours and unsafe conditions in return for paltry wages.

Rocco Rorandelli Rocco Rorandelli started working as a documentary photographer after his doctoral studies in biology. He has a profound interest in global social and environmental issues, and is a founding member of the collective TerraProject.