With the holidays upon us, the Great Sugar Rush is on: we’re gorging ourselves on sugar-dusted cookies, nibbling at peanut brittle and devouring plump chocolates oozing with caramel or raspberry liqueur.
Chances are that few of us wonder how these treats make their way into our watering mouths today, much less centuries ago. Back then, European colonizers presiding over a burgeoning sugar economy enslaved thousands of Africans to work on sugar cane plantations across the Atlantic. But what has changed? How does our sweet tooth continue to influence world trade, commodities markets, our own health and that of our environment?
Most of us just want to satisfy our cravings, but not all. Over the past year, six photographers — Alejandro Chaskielberg, James Whitlow Delano, Carl de Keyzer, Ed Kashi, Tomasz Tomaszewski and Francesco Zizola — have examined sugar’s bittersweet legacy, from its colonial past to the complex global forces that control production today.
Commissioned by Noorderlicht, a Dutch foundation that supports photographers worldwide, the artists were sent around the globe to track a single product — sugar — from farm to factory and, ultimately, to consumers. They each recorded a unique aspect of the industry, or what survives of it, in the Netherlands and its former colonies Suriname, Indonesia and Brazil.
“To understand the present-day global economy, it’s really interesting to look at the past of a product like sugar,” said Sjors Swierstra, project coordinator of “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar.” “Sugar was a very important commodity for the Dutch. It was one of the defining commodities when you look at the origins of globalization.”
Last month, an exhibition of the photographs began its world tour in Java. Fittingly, the show will change as it moves, according to the designs of local partners in Indonesia, Suriname and Brazil. Noorderlicht calls it an “open source” project: it provides the material, including the modern photographs and archival images from the colonial era, and local artists and curators adapt it to fit their own narrative.
In Jakarta, for example, the exhibition, Sugar Town Inc., also featured the work of local artists — illustrators, videographers and muralists — who created a store where everyday products (mugs, bags and T-shirts) emblazoned with the semi fictional logos of Indonesian sugar factories were for sale.
“This is a method of retelling the stories behind sugar,” said Julia Sarisetiati, project manager and co-curator of the exhibition. “If these are the stories that need to be known by many people, then ideally they should be on the streets we walk.”
Collectively, the photographs function like chapters in a story, leading the viewer from markets in Jakarta to Surinamese migrants in the Netherlands to lobbyists at the European Parliament in Brussels.
Mr. Tomaszewski’s photographs of sugar towns in Indonesia and the Netherlands revealed polar opposites within the modern sugar industry. In Java, he was ushered into the island’s few remaining sugar mills with ease. There, he found hulking steam-powered machines transported from the Netherlands more than 100 years ago, and employees who worked eight-hour shifts in 100-degree heat without safety helmets or even shoes.
“You have a feeling that you are crossing a timeline and going back to a century before you were born,” Mr. Tomaszewski, a Polish photographer, said.
Mr. Tomaszewski struggled to keep pace with factory workers in the extreme heat and humidity. “It is an absolute inferno,” he said. “I could work for maybe an hour and then my cameras would collapse. I had to have a second set of cameras in the car.”
Thousands of miles to the northeast, in the Old Dutch sugar village of Hoogkerk, the scene at the Vierverlaten factory was entirely different. For one thing, the Dutch produce sugar from beets instead of cane, so the surrounding countryside is dotted with farm equipment like tractors and combines. Sugar production in the Netherlands is highly sophisticated and relies on state-of-the-art equipment, computer automation and relatively few people. Industry standards in the two countries are also poles apart: in Java, many factory workers spend their days covered in toxic black grease. In the Netherlands, employees in protective white clothing vacuum the factory floors.
Sugar production in Indonesia and the Netherlands does have one thing in common: it is on the decline. Centuries ago, the Netherlands was a hub of the international sugar trade and Indonesia was the second-largest producer in the world. Now Dutch factories are being dismantled one by one, and Indonesia is increasingly importing sugar from Brazil.
“The sugar factory in Holland reminded me of an emergency room in the hospital except that it’s cleaner,” Mr. Tomaszewski said. “To get into the factory, I spent 45 minutes putting on helmets and special boots. I would have to change outfits coming from one part of the factory to another.”
Brazil has been exporting sugar cane since the 1500s. But the country made headlines several years ago when it announced that with the help of ethanol — a fuel made from fermented cane juice — it had weaned itself off foreign oil. Today, Brazil is the largest producer of sugar cane in the world, the second-largest producer of ethanol and a leader in biofuels. Its sugar cane ethanol yields far more energy per acre than corn and some Brazilian mills produce so much excess electricity that they sell it to the national grid.
Before his travels in the Emerald Desert, as Brazil’s sugar cane region in central São Paulo state is known, Mr. Kashi had not realized just how formidable the sugar industry there had become. Of course there are problems, he said. In fact, human rights and environmental groups have raised concerns about working conditions and deforestation. But Mr. Kashi seized the opportunity to photograph the flourishing trade, not to mention the challenge of conveying an intensely organic process in pictures.
“I would go back to my hotel every night and my nostrils would be caked with sugar,” Mr. Kashi said. “My gear and my clothes had a film of sugar on them. In the yeast-making area, you have these pungent odors. There was a very physical, almost sensuous quality of the work.”
After three weeks, Mr. Kashi left the rolling cane fields of São Paulo for the Netherlands, where he crisscrossed the small country in search of candy factories. Photographing the mass production of gum and hard candy, he was both awed by the mechanics of the industry — its conveyor belts and sugar sprayers — and disturbed by its implications.
“It reinforced my very abject feelings about sugar,” he said. “Large swaths of our population are eating heavy sugar, salt and fat-content diets; it’s not a surprise that you have behavior that is erratic, emotional instability and obesity. We don’t need to spend gazillions of dollars researching the impact — it’s pretty obvious.”