Where Cell Phones Go to Kill

Photo Courtesy of PieterHugo.com

Have you ever donated your old cell phone or computer to one of those places promising to recycle them? Did you feel good walking away thinking hey, I just saved a square inch in some landfill somewhere? Did you think it went to some underprivileged school in a foreign country where it was used to teach children about technology?  Did you ever sell your old iPhone to one of those sites promising to refurbish it or use it for parts? Well chances are your phone or that computer didn’t quite get recycled in the way you envisioned, nor did you think that cell phone might actually go somewhere where it could harm someones health.

Photographer Pieter Hugo found out where much of the unwanted technological equipment and waste really ends up, when he did his series, Permanent ErrorIn this case he located a huge dump in the outskirts of Ghana that housed primarily technology components.  His images depict residents of the slum digging through vast mountains of technological waste in search of valuable precious metals. These metals represent food for their families, so future health dangers from exposure to noxious and toxic chemicals created from the burning piles are not of immediate concern to them. These piles of waste are products of our own western greed and incessant need to have the latest and greatest technological devices. Some of these residents live upon the waste and some photos show animals lying amongst the rubble and waste. It is a stark contrast from the shiny Apple stores we complain about standing in line in front of for a few hours just to get our hands on that latest iPhone.

Animal Amongst Technology Trash in Ghana Slum Pieter Hugo Permanent Error

Photo Courtesy of PieterHugo.com

Burning Technology Trash in Ghana
Photo Courtesy of PieterHugo.com

From the press release for his exhibit:

Pieter Hugo’s new series, Permanent Error, depicts Agbogbloshie, a massive dump site for technological waste on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital city, and the locals who burn down the components to extract bits of copper, brass, aluminum and zinc for resale. Tons of outdated and broken computers, computer games, mobile phones and other e-waste are shipped to the area as “donations” from the West, under the guise of providing technology to developing countries. Rather than helping to bridge the digital divide, the equipment is transformed into noxious trash threatening the health of the area’s inhabitants and contaminating the water and soil.

Gray plumes of smoke rise from smoldering piles of disassembled monitors, motherboards and wiring, providing an apocalyptic backdrop for Hugo’s portraits of the workers. The subjects, many of whom are young men sent by their families from impoverished outlying villages, are photographed full-figure and directly engaged with Hugo’s medium-format camera. With each portrait, Hugo draws the viewer into the conditions imposed on this slum community and their effects on individuals. Collectively, the photographs expose consequences of the West’s consumption of ever-new technology and its disposal of outmoded products in poor countries ill-equipped to recycle them.

I don’t know about you, but I am going to think twice before donating my electronics equipment or at least make sure the organization that is taking it really intends to recycle it properly.

Ghana Girl Amongst Technology Trash

Photo Courtesy of PieterHugo.com


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