The cost of change

Pieter Hugo, Naasra Yeti, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, 2009

In a way at the opposite end of the scale to John Stezaker’s use of existing pictures, Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error is a documentary project that clearly shows the very real human cost of technological change and the rush to replace anything we perceive as slightly out of date. I’m sure many of us are guilty of replacing computers that still work because there are newer and faster models around. This body of work is a reminder that we need to learn to deal responsibly with the equipment we cast aside. Hugo has photographed the landscape of a site in Ghana where obsolete technology is dumped and the young people who make a living of sorts salvaging the metals that have a scrap value.

David Akore, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, 2010

Hugo’s portraits have real power; these are people who are scraping a living in a way that is undoubtedly damaging their health. The landscape they inhabit is an apocalyptic one peppered with recognisable fragments of digital technology. The most appalling aspect of the process is that the technology dump is in no small measure a result of the developed world foisting its cast offs off on the developing world under the dubious rhetoric of reducing the digital divide. The idea of sending old technology that is no longer quite fast enough for our needs to those without computers sounds so altruistic, but the reality is that it’s a way of avoiding the cost of recycling and responsible disposal. Instead of sending people the capacity to join the digital age we are shipping them our carcinogens to blight their lives instead of our own.

Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana, 2009

There is a beauty to these pictures that could perhaps be seen as referencing painting both in terms of the pastoral idyll and the relationship between the landowner and the land. Connections could also be made with the Walker Evans’s photographs of migrant workers in the American dust bowl in the depression of the 1930s. Ultimately though this is a body of work that needs to be seen for what it tells us about the world we have made.

Peter Hugo’s Permanent Error installed in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London

If I have a reservation about the way Hugo’s work was installed in the Deutsche Börse exhibition it’s about the display of the video work. Firstly I think for me the photographs are where the real power of the project lies. Secondly though, and I’m aware I’m being picky, I felt the video would have been better shown on computer monitors: on the type of technology that is at the root of the problem here. The use of video monitors – expensive equipment that still has a role in galleries and tends to be used until it fails – seemed oddly incongruous to me. It’s possible the monitors were sourced from the dump site in Ghana, I don’t know, but even if they were I’d warrant that for every one abandoned video monitor there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of discarded computer monitors.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize exhibition is at the Photographers’ Gallery, Ramilles Street, London W1F 7LW until 9 September 2012

2 thoughts on “The cost of change

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