(Ross Courtney is a reporter and photographer for the Yakima Herald-Republic. He works out a home office, writing and photographing subjects mainly in the eastern end of the Yakima Valley. He went on a Rotary Club professional exchange to Brazil April 22 – May 23).
Once I got over myself, the rules quit bothering me.
At first, I felt like my hands were shackled when Carlos, a manager of the National Steel Company in Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro State of Brazil, told me not to photograph people.
The equipment and facilities were fine, but no people.
“Why doesn’t he just lop my balls off,” I whispered sarcastically to a traveling companion on our Rotary sponsored professional exchange last month to Brazil. As a visiting journalist, I wanted to photograph people more than anything.
We were about halfway through our month-long trip, a fascinating yet exhausting look at a country with a booming economy. Everywhere we went, we were at the mercy of hosts who wanted to show us as much as possible in a short time. We were constantly being told what where to go, what to look at and what we were and were not allowed to do.
Like I said, it was fascinating. But it wore on the nerves after a couple of weeks.
Back to the steel plant in Volta Redonda.
The mid-sized interior city is built on and around this plant, which cranks out — some high number I’ve since forgotten — tons of steel per year. Ten thousand people work at the company and another 8,000 are hired as contractors.
Everybody either works there or knows somebody who works there.
In fact, the city was born in the 1950s, roughly a decade after the steel plant opened, and has grown in a circle around the facility. About 1989, the company privatized, causing violent conflicts between employees, the new owners and the military. Four people died. Schools were closed.
Today, the skyscraper that once housed the administrative offices is empty and smaller cottage companies, including cement plants, have set up shop in town.
I wanted to document life at the plant. It’s impressive when 25-ton rods of hot steel emerge from the cauldrons right in front of me and I look straight down on giant vats of molten ore.
But people make things happen … in any industry. People operate levers. People make decisions. People answer for safety restrictions. If they aren’t followed, people get hurt.
Life happens at lunch break, when scores of workers file into the cafeteria to eat lunch for roughly 25 cents. They huddle around three outdoor sinks, reaching over one another to borrow the single canister of soap.
Life happens after lunch when employees kick their feet up and nap Brazilian-style on a shady patch of sidewalk between shifts.
Life happens when people ride bikes to work, as many of them at the 1.6-acre plant do because of the facility’s central location. First they take a bike safety course and get company permission, pedaling to and fro in the shade of Brazil’s booming industrial economy.
What’s more, pictures of people put something as immense as this steel plant, visible from anywhere in the city, into perspective.
But Brazil has trouble with lawsuits over pictures. So, Carlos told me “no” anytime we neared people. I was limited to the tops of helmets, silhouettes in the distance and my non-journalist friends teasing me about not being able to “stick my camera in people’s faces.”
(I don’t really do that, but we’ll talk about it another day.)
I didn’t stop shooting, but after I adjusted to the restrictions, I noticed so much more that photos could not have depicted anyway.
For one, the heat. My goodness, the heat. As I held a pocket video camera over a steel beam passing a good 20 feet below me, I had to pull my hand away. When cooling waters gushed over a steel red plate, the catwalk rumbled as if a locomotive passed nearby. Particulates sifted through the air like volcano dust.
So, it was a good day anyway. I felt, smelled and heard a giant steel plant much closer than most people ever get to do. Later I learned from some Brazilian pro photographers that it was a rare treat to be allowed to shoot photos inside the plant, at all.
I late felt bad about my grousing though I’m convinced Carlos never heard any of it.
True, I couldn’t shoot all pictures I wanted. True, I couldn’t visit Brazil on somebody else’s dime doing exactly what I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. Just like the people who work at the steel plant, I had rules to follow.
And that lesson, more than anything my camera could have captured, is a pretty accurate picture of life.