The Fireworks Economy of Agbogbloshie, Part 2

Fire is the dynamic that attracts teenagers and young men to a wire burning site.  Fireworks economy.  Build a bonfire, attract a crowd.  The wages at the wire burning site on the Odaw River are so low because 1) the youth suffer chronic unemployment and, 2) burning wire adds very little value. There less plastic on the wire, which makes it worth a little more, but the clump of wire weighs less, because the plastic is gone.

Who else is attracted to fires?  You got it, photojournalists.

Enter photojournalist #10.

Shin Woong-jae

Shin is from South Korea and came to NYC to study photography, according to his bio.  His instagram and twitter feed was all about wire burning, and I'm sure he's the "China Man" the Musketeers told me about a little while ago.  He seems like a nice guy.  Not a credible scrapyard expert (see Adam Minter or Jon Spaull's reporting for that), but at least gets the jist of the philosophical question of whether photojournalists wars can create "collateral damage".  Seems sincere in understanding the pitfalls of "photographer protagonist".

So how does actual information compete with fire?  I can show a photojournalist the World Bank statistics that during the past decade "Emerging Markets" economies have MORE households with Televisions and Cell Phones than the OECD.  If they have traffic jams, it stands to reason they generate tires to burn.  But how does "they are normal people" translate to photojournalism?  It just doesn't, it cannot.

What has been a challenge for journalists (e.g. Jacopo Ottaviana) is to remove the "fireworks" story about "largest e-waste dump on earth" without quashing the editor's interest in funding the story at all.  Why pay for a reporter's trip to Africa, if the report is "nothing much to see here?"

Pics of kids at dumps?  Easy pickings.

Spray painting graffiti doesn't pay much. Burning tires pays nothing at all.  But the young unemployed do these things, and do them in gangs.  And now they find themselves, oddly, the most recognized men in Africa.  And they find their "job" to be the most photographed, most embellished, most marketed position to European audiences.

How are the "boys" supposed to roll with this?

Agbogbloshie's smoke and fire draw photographer "boys" and "girls" as well.  The scrapyard is much bigger than the wire burning site on the riverbank.  But the photographers always aggregate beside the same 25 "boys", the ones who burn the wire. It's the money shot, the one the editor gives thumbs up to.

Yahroo, Awal, and Razak, aka the "Three Musketeers" of Agbogbloshie, have smart phones and call me pretty frequently on Whatsapp.  I try to accept a call at least once every couple of weeks, but no one could take every call.  The Boys I Mean Are Not Refined.... they are supposed to call when they have some news (and when a foreign reporter is filming them). But they most often call for the same reason they burn tires.  They are bored.

Chatting with foreigners who come to the site is at least as interesting as watching an English Premier League game, and let's not play games - I know these guys because they burn wire, and I don't know nearly as many of the hundreds of other metal recyclers at the (mostly automobile) scrapyard.  I have more selfies near the wire burning area on my phone than I have of piles of steel or aluminum melting (though I do have those).  I'm part of the attention, and perhaps part of the problem.

We will reduce wire burning by increasing employment opportunities.  Throwing a little cash their way, and advocating @Placebo do so as well, is a short term solution that perpetuates the attraction to the site.

Awal's gimmick is to invest in more fuel accelerant on his wire piles to attract the attention of the photographers.  He will try to get your Whatsapp contact info, and then text you when (if?) his child is sick. Placebo's filmographer was most upset when I proposed to the Three Musketeers that they try to sell their handmade "fair trade" copper bangles on the Placebo website.  She announced to followers on Facebook that my intention was sinister or suspicious.

I'm just noticing that the documentaries are not reducing the wire burning. The attention is "fanning the flames".  And there is an economy there, the Musketeers are getting something out of it.

Reggie Yates of BBC, and Kevin McElvaney, and Sasha Rainbow attract my attention because they place themselves, the Reporter, as Protagonist. McElvaney especially seems to think he's saving the Africans by "holding up a mirror" to Germans.  A mirror that says to them that Africans stupidly pay tens of thousands of dollars to import televisions they are too stupid to repair - he thinks (states) most of the time that they TVs go directly from the port of Tema to a shop, are sold, the buyer finds it can't be fixed, and dumps it at Agbogbloshie.

McElvaney put far less time into research or math than Dr. Jack Caravanos of SUNY put into the Blacksmith Institute research.  Caravanos actually did quite a bit of work on the site before Blacksmith Institute got its $1M grant to "transform" it.  McElvaney, with no such research, generated a German budget of $15M to make a "state of the art" recycling program there.

The fireworks economy turns out to be much bigger than the value added to copper or tires, or the avoided disposal costs alleged to be the "driver" of exports by UNEP (a speculation we have completely disproven, but UNEP does not correct or acknowledge).  The value is to photojournalists, who are attracted to the same firey glow that the teenagers are.

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