Thursday, February 11, 2016

Salt of the Earth

A salt worker in Phetchaburi province walks out of the flats after raking up salt. 

I photograph the salt workers of Thailand's gulf coast every year. I like seeing how things are made, especially something as ubiquitous and taken for granted as salt. There are some small salt mines in northern Thailand and I photographed salt being mined in northern Laos a couple of years ago. But on Thailand's gulf coast, salt is gathered in the traditional way. 

Fields near the ocean (or in this case the Gulf of Siam) are flooded with ocean water and then left to dry out. As the sea water evaporates it leaves behind salt. 
Salt workers walk through an empty warehouse on their way to the fields to harvest salt. 

The last few years I've been photographing salt workers in Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram provinces, both very close to Bangkok. We could leave Bangkok about 6AM and still be in the fields at sunrise, which is about 6:45 at this time of year. 

It was very foggy when I went out to photograph the salt this week and when we got to Samut Sakhon I couldn't see across the highway. It would have been almost impossible to photograph the workers. So the person I was working with suggested we keep going down the coast to Phetchaburi province. 
Workers use shovel like things to break up the crystallized salt in one of the fields. 

It was a good call. Although we missed the sunrise, the workers in Phetchaburi start late and we still managed to get to the salt fields before the workers started for the morning. The Samut Sakhon / Samut Songkhram fields are in a rapidly industrializing area (the two provinces are next to each other and the salt fields are in both provinces) every year the fields get smaller and the backgrounds become more cluttered with factories and industrial parks. Every year there are fewer fields to photograph because the land is being sold for industrial use. 
A worker pushes the salt into piles. 

Phetchaburi is about an hour further away and a little more remote, plus the roads are only two lane (the salt fields in Samut Sakhon are off a six lane divided super highway). The ambiance in Phetchaburi is much more rustic. 

Gathering salt this way is very much a seasonal task. It's done only in the dry season, as the fields dry out. I've been in Samut Sakhon when the harvest was delayed by a couple of weeks because unseasonal December rains made it impossible to gather salt. 
A salt worker pushes salt into his basket. Workers in Phetchaburi carry the salt out of the fields in wicker baskets suspended from their shoulders by a bamboo yoke. It's the way they've harvested salt for centuries. In Samut Sakhon, workers use wheelbarrows to get the salt from the fields to the warehouse. 

It hardly rained at all during last year's rainy season and Thailand is in the midst of a drought. While it's a disaster for rice and fruit farmers, it's a good thing for salt harvesters. Warm dry days and lots of sunshine are perfect "growing conditions" for salt gatherers. 
Women relax in the shade of a salt barn next to a field in Phetchaburi. Most of the workers in Samut Sakhon are migrant workers from Isan. The workers in Phetchaburi told me they were local people. 

Salt producers in Phetchaburi and Samut Sakhon are hoping for a good season this year. In Phetchaburi, they usually gather salt from late January until May. In Samut Sakhon they start a little later (usually late February or early March) and go until May. A salt field owner in Phetchaburi told me it was too early in the season to predict whether or not they would have a good year. But salt workers in Samut Sakhon have told me the drought was good for their harvest and could mean a longer season. 
A worker carries baskets of salt out of the fields...

...While another worker empties his baskets of salt in a warehouse next to the fields. Gathering salt, like so many other agricultural jobs, is brutally hard work. The sun beats down, you're standing in a shallow pool of water that is evaporating around you and you're carrying almost one hundred pounds of wet salt on your back. Think about that the next time you order a margarita with a salted rim. 

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