Mari Shibata

This photo series was born from the workers and residents of Agbogbloshie, who wanted to counter the negavitivity around the over-popularised images of their community breathing in black smoke from burning electronic waste that they extract to sell copper for a living.

A former wetland located in the suburbs of the Ghanaian capital, Agbogbloshie is allegedly the centre of an illegal exportation network for the dumping of outdated, broken and unusable products from Western nations.

215,000 tonnes of second hand consumer electronics, mainly from Western Europe and the US, come through Ghana a year - many of which allegedly end up in slum areas that are turning into waste “dumps”.
 

SHOOTING STYLE AND PHOTOGRAPHIC APPROACH


To avoid a “touristic” presence associated with the production of “poverty porn” imagery, I avoided the usual habits of bringing a DSLR and instead kept a Sony camera small enough to fit in my trouser pocket.

Despite the lack of visible equipment however, a teenage girl assumed I had a camera on me. Without a verbal conversation between us, she gave me the signal to hit the shutter - by proceeding to proudly position herself in a sea of finely milled plastic she was drying before it was to be recycled.



Others working with her could see the fun she was having and started coming up with their own poses to signal they also wanted a picture taken. The scenario meant I could document those in front of me naturally with an observational approach, rather than me directing them to act a certain way like a portrait photographer would. 


In a place where people are protective about how they are seen, this domino effect helped build trust through a visual approach. The process also allowed me to see more than just e-waste as clickbait headlines would otherwise suggest (including mine which was edited by VICE).

Positive masculinities

The most challenging section of the neighbourhood where much of the waste was being dumped is an area the majority of locals also avoided hanging around in. Here, migrants from across West Africa temporarily based themselves there from a few weeks to a few months at a time to earn a living from selling anything they can find amongst the waste that they can turn into cash.

To combat homelessness, the migrants built shacks on site from various items that have landed there. They took the best materials for themselves before it ends up in the hands of a buyer - also dressing themselves in clothing they have found in the rubbish.



Strength was a key feature in the body language expressed by the men on site; they were as "tough" as their working and living conditions around them.

The two shots taken of the same man below demonstrates this sense of pride in different ways; the second image was how he actually wanted to be seen compared to the first shot which was taken the moment we made eye contact.


The resulting images therefore have a different tone to the mainstream portrayal of an environmental catasprophe, instead focusing on life behind the scenes that provide a wider context of why people come here despite the health risks. It goes beyond those stereotypical images of black faces covered in smoke we usually see in mainstream media coverage.


But what about those contextual shots for factual accuracy?

Yes you need them...but it is somewhat still possible to provide factual context visually whilst minimising the stereotype where possible (such as a personal or documentary project).

Let the audience do the thinking rather letting the photo give away everything.

This involves bending some of the rules that apply to breaking news photography that make the front pages, and to the videos that make the top of a news bulletin. These require all the elements in one shot; location, the action representing the headline, and the person or people involved in the action. 

It’s impossible to avoid that “smoke “ shot...but it’s possible to do it without zooming into someone with a “dirty” black face. Here, you can see smoke and the cows scavenging the endless mountain of rubbish. I’m sure it’s enough to imagine how this will affect one’s appearance.



Find different perspectives.

Most of the articles I’ve read about Agbogbloshie don’t mention the variety of scrap collection that occupies much of the activity on site. There’s definitely more than just e-waste here.



Here scrap workers look happy rather than depressed, because they are taking a break from extracting copper and other sellable metals from unwanted devices.

The wide shot respects their space whilst showing the atmosphere and the possible items from which metals extracted. Let the reader use their imagination.




Designated spaces to express religion and faith speak volumes. Just look at how those prayer mats are kept away from anything coming in.


This is how VICE ran the article.

Personally, on my own website, I prefer to put “dump” in commas - because I know the people who work and live there do not see it that way. They know it in their head, but they just don’t want to say it. And I want to respect that view...even if clickbait doesn’t always allow us to.


 
These images are available for license.

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