The People and Sweatshops Behind Argentina’s Largest Textile Fair

Photographer Sarah Pabst talks about her experience documenting the market known as La Salada.

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Jul 27 2015, 2:25pm

A market stall selling jeans in La Salada. All photos by Sarah Pabst

La Salada is Argentina's largest informal—and arguably illegal—textile fair. Bolivian immigrants flock to it in the hopes of finding employment, and making fast money. But the reality is many will end up employed in the Buenos Aires sweatshop slums where the clothes are produced.

German photographer Sarah Pabst worked with sociologist Matías Dewey to understand the lives and jobs of the people working in La Salada and the sweatshops. She spoke to VICE about her experience of the intersection between photography and sociology.

VICE: What was your first contact with La Salada?
Sarah Pabst: My first contact was in Germany where I met the Argentinian sociologist I did the project with. He said it would be really nice to make the story more accessible for other people through photography, and that's how I started taking the photos.

For you, what's the connection between sociology and photography?
I think both disciplines have a similar approach. We both wanted to tell people's stories, how hard they work, and how much they want to improve the future for their sons and daughters. None of us wanted to only show poverty despite it being so present in the surroundings. You can easily show the typical Latin American picture of people suffocating in poverty through a Western lens, but we didn't want to talk about this.

A lot of the poorest people working in the sweatshops and in La Salada are Bolivian. Why is there so much immigration from Bolivia to La Salada?
They think it's the American dream, because you can get rich really fast. Everyone you talk to has big hopes to make a living, Bolivia is very poor. Buenos Aires seems like the "big city" that you dream of going to and making a living, but in reality it's not as easy as that.

A Bolivian woman breastfeeds her child while working in a stall

Who comes to the fair to buy these clothes?
La Salada became a fair for people who can't afford to buy really expensive clothes. It is a huge textile market for those who want to wear copies of expensive designs. Most of the people who go to the fair are sellers that come from all over the country in buses to buy for their shops. And everything is paid in cash, so you can imagine how much money is moving every day.

So it's very much a product of the fashion market?
Yes, whatever is in fashion is what everybody makes and sells, and then the market saturates and people have to reinvent themselves. There was a time in which print T-shirts with bling were the hit, so someone made them and they got a lot of money. Then everybody made them and that was it.

Many of the clothes produced are knockoffs of designer brands.

The stalls and the factories that supply them are huge operations. Is there a lot of security?
The security is established through the criminal underworld. So each market has its own security, which controls everything so people pay their rents and don't steal. There is loads of money going to the police for every fake brand. In some of the markets, the security is highly armed.

How did you get access?
We talked with the owners of the markets. It is very typical for underworld guys to be very charming and welcoming. They invited us to a Bolivian festival, made us their guests, and showed us around.

Interview by Laura Rodriguez Castro, follow her on Twitter.

A security guard at the market

Buses of customers arrive at the market every day.

Security is private, and often provided by local underworld figures.

Bolivians flock to the market in the hope of finding employment and making money quickly.

The cramped stalls of La Salada

The market is the largest of its type in South America.

The many stalls are stocked with sweatshop-produced clothes.

The market is bustling from sunrise.

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