Akhter’s wrenching photo becomes symbol of Bangladesh’s grief and movement for change

an and a woman clasped in a death grip

Taslima Akhter’s wrenching photograph of a man and a woman clasped in a death grip, so to speak, in the rubble of the collapsed garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 24 has become Bangladesh’s symbol of grief and a movement for change. It has captured the grief and outrage of not only Bangladeshis but others around the globe who followed the tragedy.

Shahidul Alam, founder of Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, said of this picture, “This image, while deeply disturbing, is also hauntingly beautiful. An embrace in death, its tenderness rises above the rubble to touch us where we are most vulnerable. By making it personal, it refuses to let go. This is a photograph that will torment us in our dreams. Quietly it tells us. Never again.”

Akther, herself, said of the image, which appears in the May 27 issue of TIME magazine, and again in the photo essay of the May 10 issue of TIME’s international edition, “I have been asked many questions about the photograph of the couple embracing in the aftermath of the collapse. I have tried desperately, but have yet to find any clues about them. I don’t know who they are or what their relationship is with each other.”

She said the image haunts her all the time. She added it was as if the couple was saying to her, “We are not a number–not only cheap labor and cheap lives.”

Akhter’s wrenching photo is, in a way, a symbol of the slave labor conditions under which garment factory workers in developing countries endure to make cheap clothes for American and European consumers. The disaster at Rana Plaza is now the deadliest incident in the garment industry in known history.

At least 1,100 workers perished after an eight-story factory building collapsed with workers trapped inside.

The question to ask is why did owners of these garment factories force their workers

an and a woman clasped in a death grip

to toil under such unsafe and inhuman conditions. According to reports, workers had raised concerns about cracks that had developed in the building’s facade. But their concerns were brushed aside and they were forced to risk their lives in the building.

According to reports, the clothing being made at the garment factory was destined to an American clothing store.

Sadly, this disaster could have been prevented if American clothing companies had insisted on imposing safety standards for workers. It is not as if the American apparel buyers were not aware from earlier tragedies in Bangladesh about the risks the garment factory workers were subjected to on a regular basis.

For instance, in December 2010, 29 workers perished in a fire at a factory that supplied clothing to store brands such as Gap and JC Penney. Last fall, 112 garment workers died when a fire broke out at Tazreen, a factory that supplied clothes to Walmart and Sears.

Global brands such as Walmart and Gap generate billions in profits by taking advantage of cheap labor in countries such as Bangladesh, but they look the other way when it comes to ensuring basic safety for workers in those countries.

The time to evade accountability by these companies should end. These corporations should be forced to own up to their responsibility. Pressure, in the form of petitions and boycotting brands from companies that do not own up to their responsibilities should be kept up. These international supply chains should be shamed into entering binding agreements with the garment factories they use for a comprehensive system of safety checks. These safety checks would include independent inspections, public reporting, and mandatory repairs and renovations. Most importantly, workers should be given a voice. Union workers should be given a central role in the implementation of these rules.

Let Akhter’s wrenching photo be a symbol for change for garment workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

By Perviz Walji