Every year, nearly 6 trillion cigarettes are smoked around the world by over 1 billion people. Roughly 20% of the world’s population is classified as smokers feeding a tobacco industry worth $888 billion, a figure greater than the GDP of the Netherlands.
Over the course of a decade, Rorandelli travelled the world documenting the impact of the tobacco industry on public health, the economy, and the environment. From the tobacco fields of India to walking the conference halls of Germany, Bitter Leaves lays out how the tobacco industry has infiltrated public life and presents the startling photography alongside the even more unnerving testimony of scientist Dr Judith MacKay.
For Rocco, the project was as much a personal endeavour as a professional one. Losing his father to cancer caused by a lifetime of chain-smoking pushed Rocco to explore the impact the industry has on people up and down the supply chain.
“What I found interesting is that when you talk about smoking we usually focus on the health dangers it has on smokers but we don’t look at the other issues,” he explains. “The strength of the industry is the simplicity of cigarettes. They’re designed very sleek and clean and totally far from the reality that you can breathe and see in the fields, but also in other areas like manufacturing or marketing.”
Rocco’s work took him around the world, to traditional tobacco-growing regions like the Southern United States, as well as closer to home in Italy and Bulgaria. It was his time in Asia though which demonstrates the reach of tobacco’s major players.
“Asia is the big player today for tobacco,” he says, “you can see how powerful and ingrained in society they are. They build roads and restore temples, but at the same time once you travel out into the countryside where the crop is actually grown you will see that the wealth is not spread evenly.”
“Landowners will praise the industry but their workers and undocumented labourers will tell you how hard it is, how they wish there was an alternative.”
Having worked in photojournalism for a number of years now, Rocco is hardened to the realities he documents but even he was struck by how “extremely unfair” the system is. “It’s frustrating to know that when you’re out there with people your work is probably not going to help them. Especially when you see kids working in the fields, it’s even worse.”
Still, he hopes that his work will help open our eyes to the reality behind every cigarette we smoke, “to not just trust the appearances and to be a little more critical about what we are given.”