Nostalgia, Pain and Profit Margins

A friend visiting from Indonesia bought along a gift of kretek cigarettes – not that we are smokers but a little trip down memory lane is always a pleasant experience.

Dji Sam Soe cigarettes are supposed to be handmade, and if you visit the original factory in Surabaya there’s a large room where a couple of hundred women work diligently to make your hand- made cigarettes and thereby convince you of this reality. But, despite it being a tourist destination, you aren’t allowed to take photographs in the building, which is understandable, because after the initial look of wonder at the precision of the women working, if you stay a little longer and look a little longer, it soon becomes obvious to even the most jaded eye that what is happening below in the airconditioned room is monstrous. But then, if you are cynical, like I am, you will quickly see that it’s all a publicity thing. That there is no way the company could employ enough women to roll enough cigarettes to meet local demand, let alone the international demand for the product.

This, I consider, is a good thing.

While watching those women role each cigarette at first was fascinating, the fascination soon turned to dread as I tried to imagine a day of such monotonous routine. Each cigarette took about five distinct movements (I’m working from memory here), and they needed to be precise. At first the women reminded me of battery chickens with their continuous short jerky movements, but after a while they began to resemble badly made machines. Machines that were badly engineered, which meant they would wear out fast and whatever breakages occurred would be permanent.

Phillip Morris bought the company in 2005 for around 3billion dollars and I doubt a conglomerate like that would have vast factories of humans doing work machines could do better and more efficiently.

It’s one of those times when one is glad the myth is just a myth, a piece of advertising plugging a magically nostalgic past as real as today’s myth.


The picture was shot with a single light with a snoot attached on camera left side, a piece of white reflector on camera right side created the band reflected light of the left side of the cigarette box. The background is a batik scarf.


70-200mm, f6.3, 1/125sec, ISO100


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