Misty Keasler on e-waste

December 6, 2009

Photographer Misty Keasler makes visible the impact of e-waste – “the most toxic consumer trash that exists” – on people across the globe. Keasler’s work has been shown in Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times, Time, Dwell, Esquire, Art in America, and Newsweek among other publications. She was awarded the 2003 Lange-Taylor Prize, included in PDN’s list of the top 30 young photographers in the world and the book 25 Under 25 Up and Coming American Photographers.

Amelia: When I’m not researching communications issues, I’ve spent time looking at waste through the lens as a filmmaker. The last project I did, Wealth, looked at Americans and their objects: lots of things in closets and drawers and landfills.

Misty: That’s so interesting because this work is actually a continuation of a project that I’ve done about trash in developing countries and what happens to it. I started in Guatemala in 2003. I got a grant from Duke University from the Center for Documentary Studies. I took two trips and ended up spending a couple of months in a dump down there, and I really thought that I was done with that project, but Harper’s Magazine asked me if I would go to the Philippines and photograph a very infamous dump in Manila.

This opened my eyes to the fact that people sustaining themselves off of trash in developing countries is a global issue: it isn’t just Guatemala. It’s always the poorest people of the society that end up living off of the trash. I started looking at e-waste, as trash that is being exported, specifically in Nigeria. Nigeria is really fascinating because there is this really thriving resale market there. In Nigeria they only charge the scrap metal tax on the imported items, so they are really encouraging all of this to be brought in, in hopes that it will bridge the digital divide and get Nigeria on its feet.

You say a certain percentage of the technology that is imported to Nigeria can be reused?

Yes. I think 51% or more goes into the trash, but a good percentage is reused. The issue of e-waste is complex and it touches on the issue of obsolescence. When I’m done with my laptop it might still function, but I need a new one because it’s too slow, or because I need to upgrade the programs. When we are getting rid of a computer a lot of times we think, “Well, maybe someone could use this.”

Amelia: How long were you in Nigeria and what was your process?

Misty: I went for almost three weeks in January 2009 to Lagos, Nigeria. My goal was to follow the process of computers coming into the country. To start out, I wasn’t really sure what the process was.   I ended up finding out that they are shipped on container ships to the ports and once they arrive at the ports the customs officers go through them along with someone who works for the person who has imported the materials. Once it leaves the port it goes to a wholesale place. A lot is then subdivided. Then more sorting takes place at the individual retail shops. Men are mostly the shop owners. A lot of them have computer engineering degrees. It’s kind of amazing. They will cannibalize computers that aren’t working to try to make a computer work. Then, people will go to the computer village to buy a computer. You can get a Pentium 4, a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for about $100. Whatever isn’t used goes into the dumpster.

In Lagos trash isn’t separated, and the e-waste goes to one of seven dumps. I spent time in two of them. One of them had 1,200 people who lived in the dump and 2,000 total people who worked there. So 800 would leave at night and not sleep in the trash. The dump operates 24 hours a day. The other dump that I was at was on fire the entire time that I was there. It will burn all of the dry season. When the rainy season comes there will be enough water to put it out. It burns because the methane isn’t being controlled and it’s very hot and dry. When the sun hits it just right it starts to burn. During the dry season the city employees try to keep the fire at bay, and not let it get out of control.

Amelia: That’s incredible.

Misty: Yes, it’s terrible! Because, to my knowledge, electronic garbage is the most toxic consumer trash that exists. It’s bad enough if it goes into our landfills where people don’t really go, that are hidden, but to put them in landfills that are burning and where people are working!

Amelia: I wanted to ask you about  about the visibility or invisibility of trash in different parts of the world.   I was thinking a lot about that when we were filming Wealth. We were able to film at what used to be called “landfills” in the U.S. but what are now called “transfer centers” or “recycling stations.” We filmed in the town where I grew up. Before we went to film I was picturing in my mind the images I had from being a kid and going to the dump. At that time there were piles of rusty metal, chairs, totally open, and this was 20 or so years ago. But, when we got there to film we found that the landfill had been capped for a number of years so all you could see were a couple of hills with green grass on top of them! The town’s trash still goes through that center, but it is then trucked out to a larger regional center where we weren’t able to film. So, I am curious about your perspective on the role of images of places where trash is still visible in a way that it may not be in the U.S.

Misty: I think there’s a huge divide. I think it’s very intentional that we don’t see our trash. As soon as you put it out on the curb it disappears and we don’t really think about where it goes. We may think more about it when we are throwing away a computer, electronics, or other expensive things, but …

A few years ago I had an assignment to photograph one the largest waste management facilities in the U.S. and the security there was incredible. It’s like they are guarding national secrets! It’s really weird. One of the photographs I sent you of Nigeria is one of a road. That road is a regular road that you drive through in the city, and it cuts right into the middle of the dump that is on fire! So, you are on the road and then suddenly you are engulfed in terrible smoke and fumes, and then you are out of it a few minutes later.

Maybe, the more technologically advanced we become the more we hide our trash from ourselves. But, we’re on this consumer wheel that is really destructive of everything except our economy. The way that we have set up our trash system basically allows us to ignore what happens to it.

Amelia: In your essay “Half Life” you write, “I’m working on an equation to figure out the half-life of awareness for a given subject, a trajectory from passionate disturbance to apathy, considering factors such as wealth, exposure to advertising, and activity levels.” It seems to me that when you are thinking about e-waste you are also thinking about our awareness in the West about it.

Misty: I really like to make photographs that are about human and social issues. I am always thinking about what impact photographs can make. I always tell people that I don’t think for a second that, “a photograph can change the world” on it’s own. But, honestly, the secret is that I kind of do believe that. It’s naive and rare. Yet, the photographer Lewis Hine who photographed children working in the U.S. in the early 1900s was actually able to get labor laws changed because of these very powerful photographs of something that just existed in the world at that time that a lot of people didn’t want to talk about. There’s been a lot in the art world that’s been written and said about representation and the role of photography and filmmaking with social change, so I thought it would be interesting to play with science [and the concept of half-life] in that way.

Susan Sontag made an argument in On Photography that got a lot of people loud and vocal about any kind of work that showed the pain or the suffering of others. She later wrote another book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she sort of retracted some of her arguments. But she was pretty harsh on photography that portrayed “the other” and difficult situations. After she died someone asked, “If you actively decide to turn away from the suffering of others, then when is it that you do acknowledge and engage in the suffering of others?” In the case of e-waste I think it’s incredibly important because it’s our garbage! Our actions are really impacting these people. To show this work in the United States is important: we can produce real change here.

Amelia: Your writing and images make me think about all the different ways that there are possible connections between e-waste in Nigeria and me in the U.S. with my laptop, and the role of the artist or photographer as a kind of “translator.” In cultural anthropology that kind of role is prominent. That is, going to a place that is (typically) not your own and observing it and reflecting on it, and then coming back home and saying: “this is what it’s like in this place that I’ve been.” One of your images that I found most evocative was a stack of old hard drives, computer bases, a monitor, and some printers. This image is one that in the U.S. you can see some resonance of.

A couple of years ago, or even now, if you were to go into a thrift store you might see a similar shelf full of these old monitors that people didn’t know what to do with. Though more recently many places have, I believe, stopped taking donations of old computers. I thought it was very interesting that there were a couple of images of Nigeria that I could imagine as “this is a little shop in Brooklyn selling old computers.” So, your work is really working two ways.

Misty: I think that part of why it is recognizable is that it is our stuff. We are familiar with these things. There’s that question of what you do with images of people that aren’t from your culture, background, or socioeconomic group. I played a lot with taking the images that included people out of the project, and only using the images that could have been anywhere. It could have been here. So, I think it’s interesting that you noticed that. You can lose a sense of place if you see just those images.

After your question on the invisibility of trash, I was thinking about Second Life. In Second Life you never see any trash anywhere! One group kept a log of what was being put in the Second Life trash for a year. In a way that’s kind of how we are [in the real world] with our trash. Our trash exists, but we’re so good at not seeing it.

Amelia: That reminds me of a science fiction story I heard once. In the story we create an invention, an electronic zapper. Everyone has one in their house, and if you have some trash you don’t have to pick it up and put it in the waste basket, all you have to do is zap it, and it disappears. But, 10 years or so down the road all of a sudden you will be standing on your lawn and some old washing machine will appear out of nowhere. So, it is something like that. We’ve filled up the total electronic trash zapping capacity. Now our trash is starting to reappear in all these strange places.

Misty: That’s funny, and then everywhere becomes the dump.  The term e-waste is so weird. It kind of implies that it’s not real, like it’s virtual waste. It’s a really benign term for one of the most toxic forms of trash.

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