"E-waste Crimes in Ghana" 10: A Convenient Lie in Agbogbloshie

Fritz Lang's Metropolis film inspired Joeseph Goebbells, Adoph Hitler's Nazi propagandist, to try to hire him for the white supremacy movement.  What "e-waste" film documentaries should learn from Lang.

So, have we all enjoyed the photos of fire and sweaty young recycling men?  Have we proven that we care?  Have we validated our recycling credentials, proven our concern, certified out downstreams, and licensed our morality?

Fritz Lang's Metropolis inspired Goebbels
Not wanting to boycott reuse technicians in Tamale does not mean we care less than you do about wire burners in Accra who are exposed to toxic soil.  Hopefully, my concern justifies my own photos.  Because that's what Agbogbloshie is.  It's a photo backdrop.  Just a nice mashup of shantytown, smoke, gadget debris and glistening muscles.  It has become a cheap movie set for #ewastehoax propaganda.

The Tamale reuse workers not only support themselves, they usually support several others in their Dagbani speaking tribe who could otherwise feel forced to move to Agbogbloshie (Accra), Ghana to burn wires.  And their scrap brothers in Agbogbloshie support not only themselves, but their own children, siblings, and parents.

This is ultimately addressed to Lord Chris Smith, because the UK has given itself a special role as "steward" of the Dagbani and the secondary market in West Africa.  He has proven his environmental credentials by circulating stories about the "largest e-waste dump on earth", the "most toxic recycling on earth", and has issued press releases crowing about Mighty Joe Benson.

Clang go the prison bars.

Yet clang, clang, clang go the Agbogbloshie scrap metal workers.  Stop all the exports, arrest every #freejoebenson... Yet the beat goes on.

It is environmental malpractice.   Arresting and imprisoning someone for something they sold to Africa 15 years earlier, which eventually wore out, is one of those rare examples of pure idiocy.  Bad for the environment, bad for development, bad for UK taxpayers, bad for Africans, bad for the UK economy, bad for recycling.  Stupendously stupid.   And they know me, they are digging in their heels, thinking Jim Puckett will stand up for them.  But Jimbo abandoned ship already.  This is Lord Chris Smith's fiasco.

The African is not living in a dark colony underground of London's Metropolis, dodging millions of tons of wealthy litter.   Africans have internet pocket devices.  The sim cards are paid for with scratch cards purchased at street corners.  Vodaphone now lets the Africans see what the pictures Lord Chris Smith's photojournalist crusaders depict of them.

For the Africans, who are curiously both victim and perpetrator at once (they pay for all the goods imported, and pay for the transport), it's a silent movie. They have no speaking role. No one asks them where they got the junk or how they got it (from African waste generators).   It's black and white, a silent film, propaganda about a dystopia beneath Europe's metropolis.
. . .
"Photographer documents Africa E-Waste nightmare"   
"Photojournalists visit E-Waste Hell"
"Photos document dystopia in Africa"

Kevin McElvaney will take a better photo of us
Do the photos speak for themselves?  Millions of tons?  Biggest e-waste dump on earth?  More toxic than Chernobyl?  Hundreds of containers per month?  Where "most of the world's e-waste goes?"  Or is the relationship between the photographer and the scrap victim/perpetrator not so black and white?

I've arrived in Vancouver, after a long connecting flight.  Accra to Amsterdam to western Canada.  I'll be here at the ISRI Convention, and will hopefully meet later with Dr. Graham Pickren of the UBC Geography department, and perhaps with Peter W. Klein at the Film department (who produced the 2009 Frontline documentary on e-Waste, the first of the Agbogbloshie dystopia films).

No one questions the sincerity of the films, nor the belief of crusaders against this "story of stuff".

We believe you, Lord Chris Smith, Peter Klein, Cosima Dannoritzer, Annie Leonard, Joan Ubeda, David Fedele, Giovana Vitola, Kevin McElvaney, Paul Uhlig, Pieter Hugo, Mike Ciaglo, and I'm sure I missed a photographer or three.   And editors at The Guardian, Independent, BBC, AlJazeera, The Economist, FoxNews, CNN, etc. believed you, too.

You can't be accused of slum tourism and poverty porn if the facts you present are an outrage.   But the facts were fake.  It was a Convenient Lie.

We are just trying to alert you to the unpleasant fact that the imports into the port of Ghana do not go to Agbogbloshie.   They just don't.  It wasn't your lie to restate "as reported" or "reported to be", but it was convenient for you.  And your photos were conveniently in the mind of prosecutors who cited the lie to put Joe "Hurricane" Benson in a cold UK prison cell.  A sentence for shipping 93% reused and repaired electronics legally to internet cafes and hospitals and reuse shops in Nigeria and Ghana... but that story had no photo setting as dramatic as Agbogbloshie's fires.

For the past few decades, the only internet and TV Africans could afford was on CRTs.  CRTs work for a long time. No one in Europe or the USA was discarding them because they were broken, much less because they'd found them not repairable.

Africa is mostly importing flat screens now, but they are used flat screens.   The reuse and repair techs in Ghana are excellent.  Of course, the devices won't last forever.  But if you film only the import and then the end of life, it's like visiting a zoo and posing by a picture of the visitor's poodle.  You have missed the entire rich story of Africa's emerging cities.

The imports at Tema Port are reused, often for more than a decade, usually longer than cheap new products.   The metal scrap jobs in Agbogbloshie are not fed by the importers.   For that matter, those recycling jobs are the best the shantytown has available.  They are managing decades of old appliances used up by Africans, risking their necks to push carts down streets of Accra collecting old metal.

Again, we aren't accusing photojournalists of being opportunists.  But the money raised from the ewaste hoax sponsors a boycott of reuse technicians, perhaps the best jobs in Africa.

White savior complex much?
We believe your genuine concern. Yet one is at risk of being perceived by Africans as coldhearted if one thinks that boycotting reuse workers will reduce the number of people who burn wires and are exposed to toxins.   As Adam Minter profiled in "Junkyard Planet", the USA had a huge problem with junk automobiles by the 1960s.  Banning used car sales in the 1950s would not have fixed it.  Your photos of poster children fund a campaign which tells them to "eat cake".

Your ability to find the right lighting and poses to create powerful, sad and scary photos is valuable.  However, it your photos are used to make people believe that a small scrap site is the largest on earth, or is evidence that a boycott of techs in Tamale is needed to support a UK shredding business, you should consider the reaction of Fritz Lang when his film Metropolis inspired Joseph Goebbels to recruit him to be head of the Nazi film studio.  

According to Lang, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called Lang to his offices to inform him that The Testament of Dr Mabuse was being banned but that he was nevertheless so impressed by Lang's abilities as a filmmaker (especially Metropolis), he was offering Lang a position as the head of German film studio UFA. Lang had stated that it was during this meeting that he had decided to leave for Paris – but that the banks had closed by the time the meeting was over. Lang has stated that he fled that very evening.
The photos have made roughly $1M per year for Basel Action Network.   Their business is to destroy and shred the secondary market, to ban the worlds poor from reusing and making do with working material they buy from the world's rich.  The poor "boys" in Agbogbloshie never got a dime from Basel Action Network, nor will the techs at Chendiba Enterprises, the high geek tech gearheads in Tamale who the Agbogbloshie men, last week, asked me to find them jobs for.

poor explinted photographer lives in dystopic nightmare
The scrap metal guys in Agbogbloshie aspire to work for the Dagbani Techs, who are the ones who pay for and import the used equipment at the Port of Tema.   There is a connection, a very real one, but it is NOT the dumping of containerloads from Tema into a Metropolis pit in Agbogbloshie.

100% of income from my Agbogbloshie photos goes to Tamale's reuse business, which hopes to hire their Dagbani brothers and sisters back closer to home.

Here is the recap.  The photographers, like poor masters degree student Justin, at right, don't want to be part of the story.   But you are.  If you use your talent to make posters for the e-waste hoax, you can expect the young men at Agbogbloshie are now armed.   I've given them cameras.   The hunters have now become the hunted.

"You can use my photo only if you tell the truth"  The theme of the last blog seems simple enough, and an unselfish demand.   The "boys" of Agbogbloshie are not demanding a cut (though they are very curious about the monetary value of the "still unsponsored" pictures advertised by Kevin MacElvaney).   The must be part of the conversation, and they want their Dagbani cousins doing reuse and repair work to be part of the conversation, too.  Those guys are heroes, perhaps to become the Michael Dells or Simon Lins or Terry Gous of Ghana.  If a hero technician emerges from the Scrap Boys home turf, they aspire for nothing less or more than to get a better job out of it, so they can aspire to get new cell phones and laptops, and digital cameras.

The better to see you with, my dear.

The real statistics about e-waste exports to Africa, as found by several multi-year studies.  Mostly reused and repaired.  Most waste is generated by Africans after years and years of reuse.

No comments: