#Ewastegate: Photographer Moral License to call me"boy'

In the morning after my 2nd trip to Agbogbloshie, I was copying a video (the reaction of the scrap youth to the laptop photos, during the filming by the American photojournalist), and while waiting for the files to open, searched "Agbogbloshie" in twitter search.

"One of the many boys, between 12 and 18 years old, working in the Agbobloshie landfill." (Valentino Bellini)
I was stunned.   This was Rachid, the young man who was sitting immediately to the right of Wahab Odoi the afternoon before,in a video I had copied to youtube that night.  In today's Washington Post.

Rachid's the one to the left, at lunch today.

The leader of the scrap "boys", Awal (Howell) agreed to bring Rachid and Razak (possibly in another photo) to meet with Wahab, Emmanuel Eric, and myself at Agbogbloshie in the morning.  We viewed the Washington Post / Bit Rot coverage (Italian photographer Valentino Bellini) first, and asked about the title - The children who make a living in the toxic world of discarded electronics.

Rachid is 22.

We agreed that there were some younger people at the yard, it's a big place.  But Awal said that the ones under 15 aren't working or burning, they are hanging around the teenagers.  And I'd seen the obvious - Most of the men working at Agbogbloshie are much older.  Wire burning is the worst job there (in pay), but it's got a high teenager/photographer draw.

The caption portrays Rachid as "typical" of workers who are 12-18.  He's 22, and boys 12-18 are no more typical of Agbobloshie scrap workers than "e-waste" is typical of the scrap found in Agbogbloshie, or white men are typical NBA stars   It's a scrap metal yard, which means you see automobiles and white goods being scrapped by strong men, not iphones burned in a kindergarden.

We also agreed that the site is toxic.   The dirt that they dig through has been contaminated over the years with lead.   The lead comes from auto batteries, or from burning older lead-insulated plastic (sometimes from heavy cable, wiring from older cars, or 1960s appliances - there's no lead in thewire from TVs or computers).   There could well be sodium azide (active ingedient in "air bags"in cars).   We heard an explosion on Wednesday, they told us it was another auto air bag.

There could be some lead from CRT glass, but there was no CRT smashing going on in either Agbogbloshie (or Guiyu), and the lead would be bound or vitrified.  If a CRT were broken into small enough pieces, the fines would certainly contribute to the leaded soil.  This is tricky, I don't want to gloss over that if these guys dig in that ash and then eat and drink without washing their hands, they wind up with blood poisoning.

So it's a toxic world, the soil they are digging in when they examine the ground for pieces of metal.  The most important thing they should be doing is washing their hands, and as Wahab said earlier, that may require a level of policing and nagging that we can't promise.

But Agbogbloshie is not a world, for the most part, populated by children.   Why would Bellini give the Post "a range of ages", 12-18, under the photo of a 22 year old?   Especially when 99% of Agbogbloshie's workers are 18 and over?

It's the same reason they keep reporting the disavowed, abandoned statistics, 75% or 80% directly imported from Tema Port of Ghana.   It gives the photographer a "moral license".   It's an 'out', a reason of conscience to take the photo.  It makes the story bigger and more likely to be covered.  It makes the places seem more exotic, and the attractive, muscular young men like Rachid, Awal and Razak seem a little more tragic.

"Moral licensing is a a particularly interesting mental glitch: apparently, doing something  that helps to strengthen our positive self-image also makes us less worried about the consequences of immoral behaviour, and therefore more likely to make immoral choices.... It seems that being “good” is where the slippery slope towards being “bad” starts."  - Agota Bialobzeskyte, Pick the Brain
For example, as I have expressed my strong moral complaint about doctoring photographs of the "scrap boys of Agbogbloshie", I naturally feel more entitled, as a photographer, to manipulate the photos, Pieter Hugo style, to make the lunch more interesting or exotic.  Perhaps not ironically, I'm as susceptible to "moral licensing" as the next photographer.  Just an example of moral relativism getting in the way  of recycling policy.

Razak, Awal, and Wahab Odoi

We took a lot of film today, mostly questions posed by Emmanuel Eric (a Ghana technician) and when Dagbani language was more suitable, by Wahab Odoi.  For the most part, I just held a camera, in the traditional role of the Nasara or "White Man".

The film is shot outside in poor light and the wind is noisy, but you can hear these men saying many things which support our concern for the hoax.

We agreed that the following statement has to apply to all photographers and journalists.  It is a very simple message, they agreed all scrappers will support.

Barcelona fan crime
"If you use my photo, no tell lies.  
  Only tell truth"

I'm so bound.

The truth is that their jobs suck.   Even if the wire isn't usually leaded or toxic, smoke is bad.  The ground is contaminated with lead.  The pay sucks.  And we paused again over the photo of Idrissa, the young man struck by a car while running his pushcart to collect "home scrap".  We know that pushing hand carts through the streets to collect this twice-reused, Ghana-generated, metal scrap is dangerous.   Far better that these young men be in school if they are under 18.   If they are older, then far better they be fixing or recycling, safely, than be unemployed.

Rachid said his father died shortly after he was born, and ;that without a father one is much less likely to learn a trade like "repair cars" (his example), and that without a trade the jobs opportunities are poor.  Even agriculture is less attractive if your family doesn't own land - he would wind up working for another Ghana family earning far less than poverty wages themselves.

Rachid said he had a young son and wife in Tamale, and that he sends all the money he can home to them (he asked for cash in lieu of a 25 Cedis lunch, that the $6.40 restaurant meal was too expensive for Wahab to offer, could he have it in cash instead?)

Rachid Muhammed asked me a question which I have to try to paraphrase (pidgin English)

"When a man get a family, and he stay home, and he no work, lazy man, we get them plenty for Ghana.  He no get money for chop for he family.  No be better I work?  I hustling"  That was his word, "hustle", I got it on film.

photoshopping scary red
The story in Rachid's eye is that he is willing to do whatever he can, to pursue any opportunity he can, to make life better for his family.  He does not want to be called a "boy".   He does not want to look "bad".  They cannot buck the feeling that Pieter Hugo, Kevin MacElevaney, and other white photographers are presenting them in a shadow of shame.  Perhaps intended to shame Americans and Europeans out of trading with people like Wahab and Joe Benson, and perhaps the photojournalists are also victims here - victims of Mike Anane and Basel Action Network lies.   Somehow, it all boils down to boycotting scary black people, in a collateral damage Mockingbird Massacre.

All three men were very clear on when a video "E-Waste Hell" came on.  "Mike Anane tells lies".   They say he charges fees for interviews, then tells the reporters what they need to hear to feel good about this exotic photo safari.  He has learned from the E-Steward business, and issues moral licenses for personal profit.

So we must tell the truth if we use these photos.

Here is a list of lies that should not appear in any photos using these men's images.

  • LIE 1 - That Agbobloshie is an electronics dump, not an auto scrapyard
  • LIE 2 - That it's the most toxic place on earth
  • LIE 3 - That it's even close to being the largest e-waste dump on earth.
  • LIE 4 - That 75%-80% of 500 sea containers per month are brought here directly 
  • LIE 5 - That millions of tons (about 800k lbs per sea container load) are dumped here annually.
  • LIE 6 - That the men ("boys") are children.
  • LIE 7 - That the silver powder in a CRT is "toxic lead" (not aluminum phosphor)
  • LIE 8 - That the imports are not working or repairable.

The #ewastegate machine works as a prime example of the Buffet's "Charitable-Industrial Complex", delivering $1.2M in pork to "save Agbogbloshie" last year.
No, don't know "Tank Girl"

The photographer pays homage to the high priest, pays his fees, and gains a moral license now to film these "children", without asking them the truth about the statements their photos are used to promote, or whether the ayatollahs of e-waste, Basel Action Network and Greenpeace, share any of the money with any of the poster men they use to scrape millions of dollars per year in donations off the back of the e-waste hoax.

They call me an apologist.  I don't apologize for these men.  I don't want to be in their shoes, we are all blessed not to be.  But if an orphan finds himself repairing computers, hauling TVs to houses, or even recycling, there are far worse things he could be doing in the slum of Agbogbloshie.  Scrap metal recycling remains on a useless list of jobs beneath wealthy people.

1 comment:

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

See comment from Pascal LeRoy of EU WEEE Forum to yesterday's blog (which I posted as well on LinkedIn). https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/accusations-denial-hoax-racism-haunt-agbogbloshie-ghana-ingenthron

I find it both rewarding and frustrating that Interpol, WEEE Forum Sec, StEP and UNU all want the Africa techs to draw distinctions who used the McElvaney Spear-chucking Ghoul photos and which report (UNU, CWIT, UNEP) said what exactly. UNU is not UNEP, CWIT is not Interpol, BAN is not PACE ... but I found each has made the same fallacies of linkage between Africa Tech Sector (who export and import) and the scrap sector (which gets VCRs with asset tags 20 years later). It seems much easier for any of them to come out and speak about the use of the photos to describe the outcome of exports by #FreeHurricaneBenson than to stand at the sidelines and expect us to treat each insult separately.

Bottom line, whether or not the VCR that Jacopo, Adam and I watched smacked apart at Agbo been "fully functional", tested, its asset tag removed, properly followed all WEEE guidelines, and been exported by E-Stewards, it would have been imported 10-20 years earlier and it would have wound up in the same place. Using photos of the scrapyard to imply that Wahabs and Bensons or whoever imported the 1990 VCR player in 2000 are the root cause of the problem seen in 2015 is fallacious (and insulting and ridiculous).

Oh, I should probably confess something. When we saw the VCR at Agbogbloshie with the "wedding" tape inside, I assumed - just like everyone in the Harvard "Project Implicit" test could forsee - that it was some Westerners VHS wedding tape. After the trip to Tamale at Chendiba, where I met a guy who does wedding videos with a 1990s VHS recording camera, I realized I'd done the same thing, and most probably it was an African's wedding (or multicultural wedding).

There is nothing that "manufacturer design" could have done to anticipate streaming video and DVDs, which caused the African to sell the VCR to a scrap peddler.

If you are on LinkedIn and want to comment, I think the dialogue can be constructive. It's probably not a great career move for me to insult UNEP, UNU, Interpol, etc., and I can understand how readers may not want to wade in. But I hope readers also recognize that bigotry is usually an innocent orgin (the Harvard implicit link is about instinctive visual reactions to race imagery), and the process of supporting gays, or Mexican immigrants, or Muslims, or whoever has run afoul of bias, is not a comfortable thing to do. I didn't enjoy my role as a kid in the 70s arguing with my older kin about segregation and civil rights laws, or the Loving vs. Virginia case (which I remember coming up at my grandparents home. I adored my grandparents, but not their beliefs about blacks).

Without these blogs, the dialogue doesn't happen, and without dialogue, the elite in the EU don't have any incentive to change their positions. I had a cordial conversation with David Higgins about 8 years ago, and WR3A submitted 25 pages of comments on testing and elective upgrade to PACE, and not a word of it was responded to or incorporated.

"Is anybody there? Does anybody care?" John Adams song in Musical 1776