A few days before the Rana Plaza building collapse, I looked at the label on one of my son's shirts. "Made in Bangladesh," it read. I thought, in passing, about the people who made that shirt: who cut the fabric; did the buttons and stitches; how many fractions of a penny it had earned them.
The shirt probably cost me $12.99.
Target took its cut of profit; the manufacturer must have made a killing.
For whatever reason, I felt a pang of consciousness that morning. I assuaged it by saying a little thank you, hoping that it would echo across the universe and land as a whisper in that someone's ear. I just hoped that someone wasn't a child.
Knowing as little as I did about the garment industry, I'd thought child labor was the worst of it.
I thought my evanescent gratitude was enough to reconcile my complacency.
Upon seeing Taslima Akhter's devastating photograph, however, I learned more about the people behind that label; that 'someone' who might have spent a passing moment caressing the cloth that caressed my son's back.
She was a mother. (Someone else's mother.) She was a sister. (Someone else's sister.) She was a daughter. (Someone else's daughter.)
Who she was to him, that man reaching across terror, across imminent death, to envelope her in a final embrace, I can only speculate.
A stranger? A relative? An employee? A friend?
A Bangladeshi activist and photographer, Akhter writes the following about the photograph, which appears in this week's TIME International:
I spent the entire day the building collapsed on the scene, watching as injured garment workers were being rescued from the rubble. I remember the frightened eyes of relatives -- I was exhausted both mentally and physically. Around 2 a.m., I found a couple embracing each other in the rubble. The lower parts of their bodies were buried under the concrete. The blood from the eyes of the man ran like a tear. When I saw the couple, I couldn't believe it. I felt like I knew them -- they felt very close to me. I looked at who they were in their last moments as they stood together and tried to save each other -- to save their beloved lives.
Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable -- it haunts me. It's as if they are saying to me, we are not a number -- not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too.
Certainly their lives were as precious to someone else as my son's life is to me.
The morning I put the $12.99 shirt on him, I gave him a hug and a kiss as I always do after we get dressed. I wonder if it occurred to me then that his "Made In Bangladesh" shirt spent more time embracing my boy that day than I did? After seeing Akhter's photograph, it certainly occurs to me now.
Pat Robertson says we ought to pray over the clothes we buy in thrift shops in case demons should linger in the stitches and buttons. I believe Robertson is in possession of a fantastically paranoid imagination when it comes to most of the things he espouses, but I do believe that fabric is capable of its own kind of memory.
Akhter's photograph merely captured that memory in pixels. A memory of a mother, a daughter, a sister and her friend at the end trapped in a final embrace. More than a whispered thank you echoing across the universe, it's a silent scream demanding a response across the globe.
Though we mothers/consumers dress our children with love each and every morning, the time has come for us to purchase their clothing with equal awareness.