Latin American Fotografia: Ed Kashi

By David Schonauer   Wednesday October 7, 2015

The average lifespan of Nicaraguan sugarcane harvesters is 49.

At the root of the early deaths, notes documentary photographer Ed Kashi, is Chronic Kidney Disease, an affliction of unknown causes that has resulted in the death or sickness of some 10,000 sugarcane workers over the past decade.

Kashi has spent nearly three years on the project, producing photo and video series for two non-profit organizations that are looking for a cure. One of them, the Open Society Foundation, has used Kashi’s imagery to raise awareness of the disease via Instagram and other outlets. The work has won wide acclaim and was named as a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 3  competition.

“I was originally commission by a small non-governmental organization to go to Nicaragua to go look at this issue,” Kashi says. “Once I got there I could see it was an important story—it’s not only underreported, but very significant in that it touches people everywhere indirectly. Sugar is something we use every day.”

Kashi, a New York-based photojournalist with the VII photo agency, has covered social and political stories around the globe, exploring subjects like aging in America and the impact of oil on Nigeria’s environment and society. His work has appeared in magazines like National Geographic, for which he has shot 17 feature stories. He has traveled to Nicaragua four times in the past two and a half years and is planning to travel to both Nicaragua and El Salvador in November and December to continue his project on sugarcane workers.

“It’s the kind of personal project I’ve always prided myself in and gotten excited about,” Kashi says. “It’s not just about the photography and the artistry and the images. It’s also about really being part of change.”

The work is indeed making a difference.

“The organizations I’m working with are engaged with epidemiologists and other doctors to find an answer to the problem. And they’re coming close,” says Kashi. Early evidence points to a link between the disease and dehydration of the workers. “You don’t see this disease in Brazil and South Africa, two huge sugar cane producing countries, because they’re in more temperate climates,” Kashi notes.

At this point, a pilot program called “Rest Shade Water” has been established on one sugarcane plantation in El Salvador to test a possible remedy. “It’s simple and easy and won’t impact the plantation’s economics,” Kashi says. “You just set up tents in the fields and make sure the workers take proper breaks and that they’re hydrated.”

There may well be other contributing factors, however. “Past generations of men worked in the fields for 30 years before getting sick, but now their children are getting sick after two years,” says Kashi. “Something seems to be accelerating the disease, whether it’s genetic or environmental, such as the herbicides being used in the fields now.”

As Kashi noted in a recent interview  with American Photography, doing such advocacy work for non-profit aid organizations has taken his career in a new and satisfying direction.

“That’’s the new paradigm,” he said. “There’s not a lot of editorial work out there, and the other economic pillar of the old style of photojournalism, archival sales, has diminished significantly. But the beautiful thing is there are all these other ways that now exist to work as a photographer that I couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago when I started.”


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Dispatches from Latin America