From the series Permanent Error
For the past year Hugo has been photographing the people and landscape of an expansive dump of obsolete technology in Ghana. The area, on the outskirts of a slum known as Agbogbloshie, is referred to by local inhabitants as Sodom and Gomorrah, a vivid acknowledgment of the profound inhumanity of the place. When Hugo asked the inhabitants what they called the pit where the burning takes place, they repeatedly responded: ‘For this place, we have no name’.
Their response is a reminder of the alien circumstances that are imposed on marginal communities of the world by the West’s obsession with consumption and obsolesce. This wasteland, where people and cattle live on mountains of motherboards, monitors and discarded hard drives, is far removed from the benefits accorded by the unrelenting advances of technology.
The UN Environment Program has stated that Western countries produce around 50 million tons of digital waste every year. In Europe, only 25 percent of this type of waste is collected and effectively recycled. Much of the rest is piled in containers and shipped to developing countries, supposedly to reduce the digital divide, to create jobs and help people. In reality, the inhabitants of dumps like Agbogbloshie survive largely by burning the electronic devices to extract copper and other metals out of the plastic used in their manufacture. The electronic waste contaminates rivers and lagoons with consequences that are easily imaginable. In 2008 Green Peace took samples of the burnt soil in Agbogbloshie and found high concentrations of lead, mercury, thallium, hydrogen cyanide and PVC.
Notions of time and progress are collapsed in these photographs. There are elements in the images that fast-forward us to an apocalyptic end of the world as we know it, yet the alchemy on this site and the strolling cows recall a pastoral existence that rewinds our minds to a medieval setting. The cycles of history and the lifespan of our technology are both clearly apparent in this cemetery of artifacts from the industrialised world. We are also reminded of the fragility of the information and stories that were stored in the computers which are now just black smoke and melted plastic.
Shelby Lee Adams
The influence of classic photographers and Southern writers and others who have documented the Appalachian region is clear in the work of Shelby Lee Adams. An image such as The Home Funeral, however, crystallizes the familiar shacks and extended families into something unexpected. Using multiple strobes and an 8×10 view camera, Adams achieves both a special quality of light and a depth of field that keeps everything, from the wall-calendar in the foreground to the stark bulb on the ceiling to the ferns above the coffin, in focus. Adams’s composition – marked by sharp division of space and clarity of detail – places the viewer in the role of omniscient visitor to this otherwise private moment. Adams himself, having grown up in Kentucky and familiar with the mountain culture, is both an insider and an outside observer – a dichotomy the documentary photographer must frequently confront. He takes on this role once again in Leddie and Children, conveying a juxtaposition of both the claustrophobic familial closeness and the wide open space of the landscape itself.
Shelby Lee Adams was born in 1950 in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. He now lives there as well as in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. Appalachia is not only Adams’s birthplace, but the subject of his photographs as well.