Seventy percent of toys sold worldwide are made in China, where they are manufactured cheaper than anywhere else in the world. The price is paid by the factory workers, who have to work till near exhaustion. The photographer Kai Löffelbein travelled to Shantou, the self-proclaimed toy capital of the world. To get access to the factories, he pretended to be a buyer. Observed closely by distrustful eyes, he documented the production conditions under which toys are manufactured for the world market. The whole story can be found in LFI 5/2015.
Q: What gave you the idea to do this reportage?
A: Consumption and responsibility have played a big role in the work I’ve been doing over the past few years. What is meant by globalization, and what specifically does it mean for people? How does our lifestyle influence the lives of others? Who are the winners and who are the losers? On principle, I also find it important to photograph stories abroad, that have something to do with our lives here.
The scandals surrounding working conditions in the clothing industry and the tragic collapse of the textile factory in Sabhar in Bangladesh, created an awareness of the exploitation of textile workers in cheap-labour countries. But what about the toy industry? An industry with a yearly turnover of 80 billion dollars. Seventy percent of toys sold around the world are manufactured in China. We are all accompanied by the MADE IN CHINA label from a young age. Baby rattles, stuffed animals, dolls and remote control cars – most toys found in the rooms of European children were produced in China.
I was also very inspired by the the pictures of factories in Edward Burtynsky’s book China.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you when working in China?
A: Access to the factories was definitely the biggest problem. Initially, Phoebe, my Chinese translator, and I tried to make appointments over the phone, but we were dismissed immediately. Then we opted for the tried-and-true method of simply driving there. But, of course, you can’t just stroll into a factory there. They are fenced in, with a secured entrance and security guards, of course. Not being able to take pictures even once I had got there drove me crazy.
Thanks to a misunderstanding on behalf of one factory’s press representative, we managed to get an appointment. They believed I was a potential buyer from Germany. That worked out well, so we used that trick on various occasions.
Q: So you pretended to be a potential buyer. Were you then able to take pictures?
A: Only in part. At first we were always taken into the bright and friendly showrooms where the latest toys were on display and where all business issues were discussed. We talked about production quantities, transport and import duty. It was a strange feeling! It was only after the obligatory cup of tea that I could visit the production stations and take pictures under the distrustful eyes of the factory manager.
Q: Were there situations you would have liked to photograph but weren’t allowed to? Were there areas in the factory where photographing was forbidden?
A: Yes, of course. You can imagine that my double role was rather tough to pull off. I don’t think buyers usually want to see the production areas; they’re mostly interested in the finished product and the price. I always said that the people I represented also wanted to know about the manufacturing process. Of course, when I spent twenty minutes or more taking pictures, they found it increasingly strange and practically always told me to stop. It wasn’t an easy job for my translator either. She would try to involve the overseer in a conversation and distract him while I was taking photos.
Q: Did your experiences during earlier visits to China help you?
A: To tell the truth, not really. I knew how hard it can be for a western photographer to work in China, and how unpleasant it is to visit a police station, but I can’t say that any of my earlier experiences really helped me. However, thanks to my travels throughout China and the region, I have developed a certain feeling for this beautiful country and its people.
Q: What are your next plans?
A: Right now I’m working intensely on my first photo book, which deals with the impact of the illegal export of dangerous electronic scrap to countries outside Europe. The book will be published by Steidl Verlag at the end of the year.
Thank you for your time, Kai!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Kai on his website. View more of his reportage in LFI. Also available for the iPad and Android.