This story appears in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Each afternoon, with the sun slipping toward the horizon, photographer Mike Hettwer would hurry from Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards to a teahouse where workers gathered for their evening break. “I noticed this golden light that would gradually descend the wall for just a few minutes,” he says. The men seemed to bask in it, lingering over the last of their sweet tea before returning to the job at hand: dismantling derelict ships, using little more than acetylene torches and their bare hands.
“When I started photographing in the yards, I was impressed by the spectacle of massive ships being demolished,” says Hettwer. “But I soon realized the heart of this story is these men who risk their lives for little more than a couple dollars a day.” During several trips over six years, he followed them into the oil-slick bowels of tankers and through the pitch-black passages of cargo ships. But his most intense experience was feeling the shock wave when a ship exploded nearby and rushing to the scene. “The owners had sealed off the yards, but from a distance I could see workers frantically carrying the bodies of their friends out of the smoking wreckage.” —Peter Gwin