The True Price, With a Hidden Cost

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The next time you dip your spoon into the sugar bowl or grab a few free packets for your morning coffee, think about this: Untold numbers of people had to cross borders illegally, live in squalid conditions, and endure back-breaking and dangerous work for slave wages for your convenience.

At What Cost, a public art project, investigates the ground-level labor abuses behind sugar, coffee, tomatoes and other commonplace commodities by showing the stories of 10 workers who have endured extreme conditions.

“Sugar doesn’t taste that sweet anymore,” said Leslie Thomas, founding executive and creative director of Art Works Projects, which is behind the project. “Most people don’t look at their shirt and realize if they got a good deal on it, someone down the line has been seriously abused.”

Ms. Thomas has been working on the project with a photographer, James Whitlow Delano, who previously documented the global water crisis and curated the book “The Mercy Project/Inochi.”

Mr. Delano’s photographs build a frame-by-frame connection between the everyday privileges of the first world and the abject realities facing inhabitants of the third world.

In one frame, a cup of coffee sits next to jelly doughnuts at a cafe. In another, a 10-year-old has a sack of coffee beans strapped to his back, and in a third, a skeletal worker in rags stands in a field of sugar cane stubble, machete in hand.

Mr. Delano, who photographed the project in hazy black-and-white images, recalls traveling to the Dominican Republic and first meeting Wasson, who migrated illegally from Haiti to a work camp where he puts in 12-hour days seven days a week cutting and processing sugar cane for about $2.50 a ton.

“Tell me you didn’t just come here to talk to me, you came here to help me,” he told Mr. Delano and Ms. Thomas through a translator.

Mr. Delano said: “It’s hard to look someone in the eye and tell someone, ‘I know where you’re coming from,’ because I can go home and they can’t. I just give them my word and tell them I’m going to try my hardest to get this out.”

Their plan for At What Cost is to have an ongoing traveling exhibition to spotlight individual stories and the abuses during the production of goods and to use people’s consumer consciousness to promote change.

“Someone in Canton, Ohio, doesn’t wake up and see what’s the life like of a 9-year-old girl in Guatemala who has been working for four  years already,” said Ms. Thomas. “We have to find a way to tell a story so that someone in Ohio might change their decision on what they buy and how they vote.”

Besides sugar, they worked to capture the arc of labor for coffee production in Guatemala, showing more children in the fields than in the classrooms, and workers picking tomatoes in Immokalee, Fla., where they said they encountered conditions that verged on slavery.

“They’re paid a wage that is impossible to survive on, a job that puts their bodies and limbs at risk, and they can’t get home,” said Ms. Thomas. “It starts to get gray as to whether they’re being forced or not.”

They also captured shadowy trades and services with even blurrier lines, like panhandling by Roma children and the sex trade in Europe. Next, they plan to document child labor in the cocoa trade in Ivory Coast and fishing in Ghana.

“If you purchased something, you’re part of the problem, but you’re immediately part of the solution because you can choose to not purchase it,” said Ms. Thomas.

James Whitlow Delano

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