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Seattle Times photographers offer a glimpse into what inspires their best visual reporting.

January 27, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Stories from south Indian's tea plantations


ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Thara, 30, works in Balanoor Plantations' tea fields in Karnataka. Workers pluck tea by hand and with shears, then place the leaves in the bag that is slung on the head with a strap.

When working as a photojournalist, the goal is to make interesting, documentary-style images that tell a story. In addition, many photographers also want the individuals they are working with to feel good about the experience.

This can be challenge, when working in a foreign country where you don't know the language. A huge part of photojournalism is communicating well with your subjects and collecting information— not just taking pictures.

One of those days, when both the images and experience came together, was at Balanoor Plantations' Murgadhi tea estate in Karnataka. That morning, I was paired up with a manager named Matthew. His job was to help me navigate the steep hillsides of the plantation and communicate with the workers who speak the Kaanada language.

Matthew took his job as a communicator very seriously. During the mid-morning tea weighing, I asked him to introduce me to the tea workers.

Over the years, I've learned that if people understand why you want to take their photograph and where the images will publish, it often eases nervousness or worry.

I asked Matthew to tell the workers about reporter Melissa Allison and I's article for The Seattle Times, and that we had been looking forward to meeting them for months. I also told them we traveled halfway around the world to do a series of stories in their country, and that we were so excited to learn about the work.

Listening to Matthew's translation, I glanced around the group of women. All of a sudden, to my surprise, they broke into applause. With that gesture, I realized they eased my nervousness and worry.

Throughout the day, the workers were kind and welcoming. Some of the women, who lived nearby, took me home for lunch. It was a pleasure to talk with some of the children, who spoke English.

Sometimes, the smallest gestures make the biggest differences. I am grateful to Matthew, who stood by my side for most of the day, taught me how to wade through tea bushes and helped me with the women’s names and information. And, I’m grateful to the workers who extended such hospitality and grace.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Balanoor Plantations workers wait in line to weigh their bags of freshly harvested tea. The company, based in southwest India, just celebrated 75 years of operations.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Tea workers head into the fields at Balanoor Plantations Murgadhi division in Karnataka, India. Tea needs to be harvested every 18 days, said Rohan Kuriyan, manager of corporate affairs. Due to labor shortages, the company can only do it every 22 days.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Balanoor Plantations workers harvest tea in the early morning at their Murgadhi division in Karnataka, India. Employees navigate narrow paths through the dense bushes, which are about waist-level for most people.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Mashawari, 24, harvests tea at Balanoor Plantations. The leaves are eventually made into black tea.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Balanoor Plantations workers pluck tea by hand and with shears, then place the leaves in the bag that is slung on the head with a strap. Tea is manufactured year-round, while coffee, grown in nearby fields, is only harvested once a year.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Shears and netting are used to collect the tea leaves during harvest at Balanoor Plantations. The leaves are then carried in a bag that is slung on the head with a strap.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Mashawari, 24, harvests tea at Balanoor Plantations. The leaves are eventually made into black tea. "The better you look after your plants the better it produces," said Rohan Kuriyan, manager of corporate affairs.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Laxmi, 65, works in Balanoor Plantations' tea fields in Karnataka.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Susheela shows her Green Leaf Plucking Card, protected by a home-made cover, while in line to weigh her bag of picked tea.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers carry bags of freshly picked tea at the end of the day at Balanoor Plantations in Karnataka.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Most women wear sandals while traversing the steep tea slopes at Balanoor Plantations in Karnataka. Rohan Kuriyan, manager of corporate affairs, said Indian tea is mostly grown in northern part of the country atop of even steeper hillsides.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers carry bags of freshly picked tea at the end of the day at Balanoor Plantations in Karnataka. The company grows a variety of crops including coffee, tea, pepper and rubber.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women weigh tea before it is transported to Balanoor Plantations tea factory in Karnataka. Tea workers are paid a fixed rate, and given additional benefits like medical, housing, utilities and retirement.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women load tea to be transported to the Balanoor Plantations tea factory in Karnataka. Tea workers are paid a fixed rate, as well as benefits like medical, housing, utilities and retirement.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women load tea to be transported to the Balanoor Plantations tea factory in Karnataka. Tea workers are paid a fixed rate, as well as benefits like medical, housing, utilities and retirement.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers carry bags of freshly picked tea at the end of the day at Balanoor Plantations in Karnataka. In addition to free housing, under government regulations, coffee and tea workers receive a set wage. "Both types of work are hard, without a doubt," said Rohan Kuriyan, manager of corporate affairs.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women tea workers head back to worker housing for lunch at Balanoor Plantations. The company provides a total of 464 units. A labor shortage has left some of the quarters empty.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Benny Carlo, 48, eats lunch inside her home at Balanoor Plantations. Carlo has been at Balanoor Plantations since birth, and has worked in the fields for decades.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Balanoor Plantations cultivates a variety of crops including tea, coffee, pepper and rubber. The company recently celebrated 75 years of operations.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers spread out tea leaves on the withering trough to remove excess moisture at the Balanoor Plantations tea factory.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

A worker walks back to the tea fields after a lunch break at Balanoor Plantations. The tea pickers are given a stick to maintain the level of the bush when shearing. "The stick indicates the level below which they must not harvest," said Rohan Kuriyan, manager of corporate affairs.

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