© Pieter Hugo
The Agbobloshie Market in Accra, Ghana, is one of many places where toxic electronic waste is illegally “recycled.” There, poor children and teenagers eke out a living by smashing and burning unwanted computers shipped to Accra from the United States and Europe, extracting scraps of copper, aluminum and other metals, which they then resell. The dump is littered with the plastic shells of monitors, which often double as stools for workers to sit on, and old keyboards and disks mix with soil made toxic by the burning waste.
When South African photographer Pieter Hugo first saw news photographs of Agbobloshie, he was captivated by the anachronism of the place—the charred ground and detritus looks post-apocalyptic, yet cattle and other livestock roam throughout the dump, bringing a pastoral element to the landscape that is “almost medieval,” he says. “At the same time, you have the termination of the West’s obsession with obsolescence and technology,” Hugo explains.
Hugo also thought about his own computer—“it stores my history, my life”—and about how these devices “end up on the other side of the planet, people burning them up to transmorph memories into pure commodities of copper and lead. It’s a strange phenomenon,” Hugo says.
Though other photographers had worked at Agbobloshie, most of the existing images were journalistic. Hugo, who is represented by galleries around the world, wanted to create a body of work—primarily through portraits of the laborers—which not only conveyed the realities of the place, but also acknowledged his presence and, through him, the presence of viewers who would eventually see the photographs.
“In all my work I try to find some sort of agency in the pictures,” Hugo explains. “I want my desire to look requited, and the confrontation that I have toward the subject requited in a way. You are looking, but you’re also being looked at, and by being looked at, your implicitness in this dynamic is being acknowledged.”
Whether they are looking at Hugo’s images in a book, on a gallery wall, or in the pages of a magazine, Hugo wants to pass this feeling of being looked at onto viewers, so they too become implicit in the dynamic, which, he says, “becomes accentuated” when the subject of the photographs is as politically charged as Agbobloshie and its denizens.
In 2009 Hugo made his first trip to Accra, spending a couple of weeks making photographs. The young men working in the dump had seen their fair share of journalists, so they were comfortable with the presence of Hugo and his camera. Before returning to Agbobloshie, Hugo went to show the work to Kathy Ryan, director of photography at The New York Times Magazine. Ryan agreed to commission his second trip to Ghana in 2010, and a portfolio of Hugo’s images appeared in the magazine last fall. Hugo has also shown the work at his galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and a book, Permanent Error, was recently released by Prestel.
Though Hugo says he would have returned to Agbobloshie with or without The New York Times Magazine’s commission, the assignment gave him a structure within which to finish the project. “I can brood and drag stuff on forever,” Hugo says.
One of the points Ryan made about the first set of Hugo’s photographs from Agbobloshie was that she never got a sense of the scale of the place. “It’s tropical, so it’s overcast all the time, and on top of this you have the smoke that’s hanging in the air, so it’s really hard to gauge depth,” Hugo explains. His solution was to create images with his panoramic camera, some of which are shown in the book.
In Hugo’s photographs, many of the young men working in the dump carry long metal poles, which they use to prod the burning computers. Seeing them at Agbobloshie reminded Hugo of the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, some of which—like his Wanderer above the Sea of Fog—depicted lone figures in a mystical landscape. Though about as far from romantic as one can get, Agbobloshie “had the same quality of wonder of these boys with staffs, standing at the end of the world,” Hugo says.
The contrast between the spirit of the boys and the poisonous reality of their environment was also interesting to Hugo. “On one level this is an existence that nobody should have, and at the same time these guys are working and they’re proud of it and they’re having fun,” he relates. “They’re teenagers beyond all of this.”
Among Hugo’s most recent work, “Permanent Error” is the most overtly political, something he is comfortable with given his journalistic background. “I’ve always given myself the room to move between these different spheres,” he says. “Sometimes one wants to write a political essay, sometimes a novel, sometimes a critical letter to the editor.”
In some of the images teenagers on bicycles socialize with their peers as small fires burn around them. Young girls carrying baskets on their heads appear in other images. The workers rest on makeshift beds or sit on gutted computers in the shade of an open-air shelter. And then there are Hugo’s portraits, in which his subjects convey pride, inquisitiveness and frankness. In some of the portraits the teenagers seem critical of the photographer and fully aware of who and what he represents. There is an element of accusation—could it simply be typical teenage impatience with being asked to do anything other than what they want? Either way we wonder, and, as Hugo would want, we feel implicit in the dynamic.
Images of livestock sitting and standing among the burnt computers also recur throughout Hugo’s book. Each day the cattle, goats and other animals pass through the dump from holding pens to their grazing grounds. Their owners struggle to move them through the dump, and as we see in Hugo’s images they linger amid the detritus, some laying down for a rest near the smoldering fires. The cattle often stand facing into the smoke, Hugo explains, which made him wonder if they might be addicted to the toxins released by the burning plastic. Their presence in the landscape “reemphasizes the parallel universe that exists,” Hugo says. “You have societies all over the world that have a pastoral existence, that have animals, but you’ve never seen it in this apocalyptic setting.”
Agbobloshie may of course appear post-apocalyptic through Hugo’s lens, like something from a disastrous future. Yet we understand all too well that these images are pre-apocalyptic, a part of the present and, perhaps, a preview of the future we are building.