Last night was the opening night for Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error exhibit at the Yossi Milo Gallery. For years now, I have been following his work, since I first saw the series “The Hyena and Other Men” back in 2005. That series deals with the story of men, who in the company of hyenas, pythons and baboons, earn their living doing street performances for crowds and selling traditional medicine.
The exhibit I saw last night, Permanent Error, focuses on 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. 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’.
In the photos you can see the terrible conditions, people burning old computers and other technology in order to obtain the valuable components from within. Seeing these photos, the pollution, the back breaking work, really made me think about the cell phones and old computers I have discarded. Many of them end up in places such as Agbogbloshie.
According to Pieter Hugo’s description of this project on his website, “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.”
Seeing the Permanent Error photos, one can only wonder how much longer we can continue to treat the world and each other in this way.