Category Archive: do it yourself


Interview: Marija Janković’s “GAK”

A few months ago, at a Belgrade photo night called Periskop, I saw Marija Janković present one of her new projects about her time as a patient at a Serbian maternity hospital, which she calls GAK. The first time I saw this work, with Serbian text, I could only really react to the photographs and the audience around me, who were often left gasping. After the event she told me the project would soon be available on her new website with English captions. I found the quotes she paired with the scenes she had photographed to be extremely compelling. They added a fascinating depth to the reportage and made me think of a slew of questions about the project and the hospitals themselves. Janković has generously agreed to publish the complete series GAK here on dvafoto and to answer some questions about her wide-ranging projects.

I’ve long admired Janković’s approach to her work and the novel ways of framing some very serious topics in Serbian history. I’ve known Janković for a few years but we had not had the chance to have an in-depth conversation about her work and what she was accomplishing. It is my pleasure to present this interview with Marija where she elaborates on GAK and some of the other projects she has completed in her career. Visit her website www.marijajankovic.com for these and many more projects.

dvafoto: Where are you from and what is your background? How did you come to be a photographer?
 
Marija Janković: I grew up in Sombor, a small baroque, multiethnic town in [the Serbian province of] Vojvodina. Before the WWII, four large ethnic groups lived together in this quiet little town. Now there are two, plus the minorities. My father was from Kosovo and this mix was important for my future work.

Visual art is pretty much all I ever wanted to do in my life. I went to a design school, than I studied painting. I quietly painted still-life until the day in 1999 when the bombings of Serbia started [ed: the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia]. It was the first time I experienced fear for my life. The involvement of the media was shocking to me. I thought that the news was supposed to follow the events, not to create them. On one side there was the Milosevic’s manipulated news, on another, the Western manipulated news. From that moment, there was two ways: close your eyes or get involved. I chose the second. I wanted to understand how the media machine looked like from inside. And I also got my first decent camera, so when I had to make my living, working in the newspapers was the solution. And I loved it, at least at the beginning…
 
Some of the work on your work on your new website is classic reportage, and other projects are very conceptual, featuring dioramas and models. Do you work on both of these sorts of projects simultaneously? Or do they represent different periods of your career?
 
If there were only two… hahaha. It’s a parallel work, sometimes more conceptual, sometimes more photojournalistic. Sometimes conceptual becomes documentary, and reportage artistic. I had, for years, worked in the press in a more traditional way (and I still do). I noticed that there are some patterns on how to make a good picture for publishing. Once I learned how to do it, I got bored. To me it was more interesting to do things differently. Unfortunately, at least here in Serbia, there is little space for that. But if I am touched by something I’ll do it, published or not. And then I decide about the approach. Not being under pressure of publishing gives you a beautiful freedom. But it also means that you will work on some other creepy, non-creative photo job to support yourself.
 
What do you see as the difference between these two ways of working, and why do you choose one approach over the other? How did you first come to make set-up scenes for your pictures? 
 
When stock photography became hysterically popular I thought to join the crowd. In my shopping basket for the set I just dropped the bag of cheap plastic soldiers; it was a strong symbol to me. Back in the studio I made a salad spiced with figurines and I was suddenly in the war zone. [ed: see Janković's War Story]. Pictures from the front line followed me from childhood and in 1999 I made collages with pictures I found in newspapers from the war zones around the world. I got a wish to make my war material but I was aware that, despite my wish, I will have little opportunity to go and cover one. So I created my own. That way I could be critical about whatever I wanted. As I said: freedom.
 


From the series “Bor” by Marija Janković

Did you feel there were limitations in the traditional reportage you practiced before? Are there freedoms that you are able to explore with these studio photographs? Do you consider them documentary? Either if so or if not, is that label important to you?
 
Two of my stories (Staro Sajmište and GAK) would be impossible to make as a classical reportage but they are based on true stories. Sajmište happened 60 years ago and many people photographed the actual place, or wrote historical essays or books. For me it was important to show the feelings of the victims and not only the political background. This is how I chose testimonies of survivors, to give them a second life. During the process of making every picture, besides double-checking facts, I had to ask to myself “Who am I in this story? Am I a victim, a reporter, a German soldier or a simple citizen?” As a matter of fact, there are only few original pictures from the time of the camp and none from the period when it was the “Judenlager”. But we are aware that the Germans made pictures and movies. In the way I tried to make the missing pictures. Later I found only one single picture of the “Semlin Judenlager” in the archives of the Novi Sad museum.

Also GAK wouldn’t have been possible as a classical reportage. No woman would tell these things with a camera or a microphone pointed at them. Because I was a patient, without camera, in the intimate atmosphere, women shared to each other their life stories. Gynecological hospital is like a micro extract of our society.

Now we see all the fantastic work from photographers reporting from Kiev. I must admit that I would like to be there, I love the adrenalin of the protests and teargas. I did cover protests in Serbia, but we all know how classic photojournalism can also be manipulative.

Labeling… I couldn’t care less. If somebody needs labels they have all the freedom to attach some to my work but I don’t start my project by giving them this kind of definition. I begin with the problem.
 
Your work takes on some very complicated and occasionally sensitive topics, such as concentration camps, the destruction of a mining town and loss of the German community in Vojvodina. What motivates you to photograph these stories? 
 
In Serbian society many historical topics are either forbidden or rewritten and people tend to go with the mainstream flow. Nobody ever told me what happened with the Germans after WWII. First, it was dangerous to speak. Then people forgot that thousands of German women and children were kept prisoners by the Partisans in camps in ghost villages in Vojvodina. Thousands died from hunger, cold and diseases. That story was challenging. Many of these German men, husbands and fathers, committed crimes, but we tend to generalize. Women and children were not guilty. It can sound naïve, but I’m often driven by the simple feeling of “justice for everyone”. Some of this motivation comes from the feeling of guilt for the crimes that the Serbs committed, against the will of many Serbian citizens.
 
Across the body of your work I feel there is a very thoughtful and determined confrontation with certain areas of Serbia’s history that I don’t see many other artists or photographers tackling. Do you in any way see all of the series you’ve published as part of a single, larger narrative? And why do you focus on Serbian stories rather than regional or global issues?
 
I don’t see Serbia as a very happy or healthy place. It’s country with a constant problem of finding its place and direction. For example, you can’t be a patriot and in the same time say that your people committed crimes. I think opposite: first as a citizen, and then as a photographer. But no matter how much I’m stressed about many things in Serbia, it’s my country and my people and I wish them well. I would like that the Serbs know their history better and that Serbian women (and all other women in the world, for that matter) have better conditions, more human rights, more jobs and better work conditions. I traveled around the region and in Europe and made some good pictures, but there are still a lot of topics to be covered in Serbia. I’m sure that the female stories are similar in the whole world but I think we should start with what we know the best. And experiment.
 
Are there other artists, from Belgrade or the region, that you look to for inspiration or camaraderie?
 
Ten years ago I was more inspired by my colleagues work than nowadays. Many of them are good friends and I love to see their work, but at this point I have the feeling that I walk alone. Working with dolls is not my invention. Dolls are a universal symbol and inspiration to many artists. There is always something traumatic about these replicas of humans. However my recent work is more appreciated by my colleagues abroad. I don’t inspire myself just with photographs. Books, fine art, music, daily life and news, global news… All this make us who we are.
 
I see your latest series GAK and your photograph “Original and 52 notarized photocopies, 2012″ as a direct and logical continuation of the investigations that you completed in your earlier work. But it is much more personal. How has your work lead up to these projects? Do you feel better prepared now to document your own life and the people around you?  
 
In the past few years I went through some difficult personal times. It’s not accepted today to complain, or to be weak. We should be up to every mission all the time, but we witness many complications due to unresolved personal problems. Domestic crime is very common in Serbia. I love the stories that nobody else talks about. I did it in my name and the name of other troubled women. Putting yourself out there is much more difficult than photographing hooligans (this is my artistic side). “Original and 52 notarized photocopies” was very popular in the Serbian media; it became a symbol of bureaucracy. It’s my baby on the picture and my documents, but the problem is universal, and concerns the whole region. During pregnancy, instead of working, I had to spend time collecting useless documents. If I had found that story and those documents somewhere else I would have used it. But one day I just realized that I am the story and the reporter in the same time. Hahaha.
 


“Original and 52 notarized photocopies” by Marija Janković

As a man – therefore not a patient –  and as a foreigner who does not speak Serbian well, I cannot conceive of having any access to the stories of these women in a gynecological hospital if it was not for your reporting. The anecdotes and quotes struck me because of their very distinct and uncomfortable voice, I suppose because they are phrased in such a frank and unguarded way, overheard and not polished for quotation. This, coupled with your photographs of a dirty model of a hospital filled with ghoulish nurses, makes an interesting approach to reportage.

How did you come to conceive of this way of telling this story? Did you consider other more traditional approaches? What advantage (as I was asking above) did you see in telling the story with models and quotations? Do you see any disadvantages with presenting this story in this way?
 
As I mentioned above, I didn’t set out to make “GAK”. It wasn’t a situation where I made a decision and strategy, like we do for the stories. I was kept [in the hospital] in a t-shirt, with a dying mobile phone, and one notebook. During the next 5 days I was surrounded by sensitive women talking about their deepest secrets and fears. Two weeks after I found the notebook, it clicked together. I was just open to see it. Now, finding a text for this kind of work is difficult. Also, if I imagine the same text with the portraits of those women, it would be less strong. It’s like a painting of a shoe by Van Gogh; it’s much more exciting than a pair of real shoes.

I have my “test audience”, my closest friends and colleagues and I send them the projects to get some feedback before I publish more sensitive things. Most women replied “I can donate you a story!”, and men: “I didn’t know, I feel sick, great work but I can’t look at this twice”…

From time to time we read reports about hospitals and what is noticeable is that people react more to some dodgy pictures that patients made themselves with their mobile phone. You need to be extremely upset to take things in your own hands. 99% of these women accept with resignation these conditions, saying “What can I do?”
 
How would you like this project to be received? Is there any advocacy present in this project, for example to challenge for better conditions at your hospital?
 
Once I got the same question (referring to Original and 52 notarized photocopies). My answer then was “Yes, it would be nice to see somebody change something”. Today I am more realistic. I don’t think somebody will see those pictures and say “She is right, we don’t need form 227/b. II” or “We should order nurses to be nicer to patients”. But it can always serve as a support on the level of “woman to woman”, or help in reaching a critical mass of complaints where things need to be changed. It’s a job for all of us to make some pressure.
 
Are you continuing to photograph your family? Does this project mark any turning point in your work? 
 
Becoming a mother is a turning point, now all I do is photographing family. I’m less prepared to deal with heavy and dark stories, or to run towards burning buildings to get more dramatic shots. At least at this moment. On another hand, I want a better environment for my child, so I will continue to challenge this absurd but well established social structure.

Thank you Marija.

Worth a Look: Adam Magyar’s Stainless

Photographer Adam Magyar, whose slit-camera photographs Scott wrote about in 2009, has a new project called Stainless. It is composed of both massive prints of subway cars and subway riders and innovative slow-motion videos of subway platforms as trains arrive at stations around the world. It is captivating work. And involved a tremendous amount of ingenuity and invention by Magyar to make it possible.

There have been a lot of articles about the work recently so do have a look: Matter has published a feature and interview with Magyar as Einstein’s Camera: How one renegade photographer is hacking the concept of time that I highly recommend. PetaPixel also published a piece about the Stainless videos and followed-up with a link to a fascinating video where Magyar speaks about the technology and code that he developed himself to make these projects work.

Matt Lutton: 2013 in Pictures

2013 was an interesting year for me, full of travel and new experiences. I was able to see a couple of stories I’ve been trying to produce for years turn into full pieces in major magazines. I was also thrilled to join Boreal Collective, where I will be collaborating with fantastic photographers and good friends of mine. We have a lot of exciting plans for 2014, and you can follow us on twitter or facebook. Another high moment from last year was exhibiting my work “Only Unity” in Belgrade, Serbia in November. It was the first complete solo exhibition of the project I’ve been working on for the last seven years.

It has been a year to take stock and think about how to present the work that I’ve completed in my time living in Serbia and start to plan what comes next.

Today, weeks late as is my tradition here on dvafoto, I present 25 of my favorite images from the last year, presented chronologically. Now I can’t wait to get started on new projects and new endeavors in 2014.

You can follow my work more regularly through my tumblr: onlyunity.tumblr.com and on instagram: @mattlutton. Here are some of the other major happenings in my life and work last year, some of which showed up in my slideshow above:

    I completed a story that I’ve been looking in to for the last year about segregation in Roma communities in Slovakia, which sometimes takes the form of construction of barrier walls separating Roma communities from Slovak neighborhoods. The project was commissioned by Vice Magazine and published in April as “The New Roma Ghettos: Slovakia’s Ongoing Segregation Nightmare” alongside an incredible story written by Aaron Lake Smith. More of the project can be seen on my website.

    In April I attended the first New York Photo Review organized by the New York Times and James Estrin of the NYTimes’ Lens Blog.

    I spent June traveling around Croatia and Serbia for the Dutch travel magazine Columbus. It was great to get off my normal beat in the Balkans and see some beautiful sights and eat very well, especially in Central Serbia near Uvac Canyon. The photographs from Croatia are now available in my archive.

    In July I was invited to be the first photographer to take over Burn Magazine’s Instagram Feed (@burnmagazine) for their new feature “Burn Diary”.

    While photographing for Burn I visited Istanbul, Turkey for a friend’s birthday and promptly found myself photographing street skirmishes relating to the Taksim Square / Gezi Park protests we wrote about in mid-June. It was my first real experience with tear gas and rubber bullets, giving me a new perspective on the work all of our colleagues who work in these situations regularly. It is not easy.

    In August and October I was reporting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina for the Chronicle of Higher Education for a piece that was published as “The Science of Hatred”. My pictures and work was published alongside Tarik Samarah’s photographs from Srebrenica.

    My exhibition at the ArtGet Gallery, part of the Belgrade Cultural Center, was a part of Raw Season organized by the collective Belgrade Raw, who I interviewed on dvafoto in 2009. The series of exhibitions this year included shows by very talented friends of mine, including Donald Weber (who was showing his project “Interrogations”) and Pete Brook (who exhibited ‘Seen But Not Heard’: Photos from US Juvenile Prisons.). It was tremendous fun to show them around Belgrade when they were in town for their openings.

    The year concluded with an opportunity to see through another story I’ve been interested in for years, and to do it alongside my friend and fellow Belgrade foreign correspondent Andrew MacDowall. The Financial Times commissioned us to produce a audio-visual slideshow in Bosnia and Hercegovina about the unique relationship between a iron ore mine in the Republika Srpska village of Omarska and a smelter in the Federation city of Zenica. The piece which was published online as “Zenica partnership helps banish ghosts of Omarska” as part of their annual Connected Europe magazine. More images from this piece are also available on my archive.

See some of the presentations of these stories in print and pictures from my exhibition on the published work section of my website.

My yearly roundups from past years: 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.

Thanks everyone, and see you around dvafoto this year!

FAA says drone photojournalism illegal…for now

Spokesman-Review video made using drone photography.

Spokesman-Review video made using drone photography.

On January 1, the Spokesman-Review (of Spokane, Washington) published a video of the city’s annual Polar Bear Plunge. A portion of the video was taken with a remote-controlled helicopter. Though a small helicopter doesn’t match what most of have in our minds when we think of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for legal purposes they are the same thing. News of the Spokesman-Review’s video spread widely after a few tweets, with some questioning the legality of using a UAV for journalism in the US. The Spokesman-Review photographer responsible for the video, Jesse Tinsley, said the use fell into a legal gray area. Poynter has a good review of the conversation and an interview with Tinsley. But on Monday, an FAA spokesperson said that there is no legal gray area regarding drone journalism. “If you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” the FAA told Poynter. In June of 2013, in fact, the FAA sent cease-and-desist letters to two American drone journalism university programs, the University of Missouri’s Missouri Drone Journalism Program and the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab. Check out the Drone Journalism Lab’s tumblr, by the way.

RC copters with camera mounts are a growing industry. You can buy them at Amazon. DJI Innovations has a handful of other models available, too. As a result, drone journalism is taking off around the world, alongside other nonmilitary drone usage. Livestreaming Occupy WallStreet journalists used toy helicopters to gather aerial footage. Paparazzi have used drones in their celebrity coverage, leading to an anti-drone anti-paparazzi bill in California. Eric Cheng, formerly of Lytro, spoke with Popular Photography about using drones in his work. Even wedding photographers are getting into the mix, but sometimes with disastrous results (see the video below).

The use of drones in journalism (and everything else) will only increase. The Reuters Institute released a report in June 2013 on just this subject (pdf of report). In the report, they argue that newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters, will turn to drones because they vastly simplify and cheapen the process of collecting aerial photography. The Canadian Journalism Project has a good interview with Alexandra Gibb, a graduate student whose thesis addresses the use and future potential of drones in journalism. And Poynter has a nice set of links and discussion about what journalists need to know about drones, though that focuses more on the coverage of drone issues than use of drones by journalists.

Not everyone’s happy about the rise of drones. The ACLU warns about risks to privacy and safety caused by the increasing use of drones in domestic security issues. And one Colorado town made national news last year with a proposal to issue hunting licenses and bounties to shoot down drones in the town’s airspace.

And while the use of drones for commercial operations, including journalism, remains illegal in the US now, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 says that the FAA needs to allow drones and UAVs in American airspace by September 2015. To that end, the FAA has announced plans for six drone test sites around the country which will be used to determine how to integrate drones into the nation’s airspace by experimenting in varied locations and climates.

Vermeer’s Camera Obscura

My mother recently sent me an interesting article in Vanity Fair magazine about Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s quest to prove that Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura-based device to make his photorealistic paintings. Jenison’s experiments are the subject of a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer produced and directed by the magicians Penn and Teller, which is now in limited release.




Tim Jenison, who had a career developing video editing and post-production software and hardware, endeavored to not only reproduce the apparatus he thinks Vermeer used – a camera obscura fitted with a handmade four-inch lens, a parabolic mirror and a smaller mirror to paint from – but to test his theory by painting a replica of The Music Lesson. This required building and sourcing a fully accurate set that mirrors the room in Delft, Netherlands that Vermeer depicted. The construction of the set in his San Antonio studio took over eight months and the painting took over 230 hours of work. It is worth noting that Jenison is an amateur painter, with no training prior to undertaking this project.

Jenison was inspired by earlier research that suggested that Vermeer might have used an optical device to assist in making his most famous paintings. The theories were based on analysis of the accurate depiction in Vermeer’s work of out of focus areas of the scene, the perfect reflections in a mirror and the proper display of the light values falling on the white wall in the painting The Music Lesson. These attributes of the paintings are claimed to not be possible without the assistance of an optical device, suggesting that the details Vermeer included in his work could not have been seen by the human eye alone or with the era’s understanding of the nature of light.

Other critics though are resisting these proposals, at least insomuch as they “oppose drastic devaluations of the role of art”, which Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of European paintings Walter Liedtke is quoted as saying in the Vanity Fair article. We’ll leave it to you to determine if these discoveries about how likely it was that Vermeer used new technology to create his art undermines the artistry and beauty of his work or if it strengthens his reputation as a master of the use of light.

Left, Tim Jenison, with part of the optical apparatus he created above him, at work in his San Antonio studio. Right, Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, the painting Jenison chose to re-create. From Vanity Fair article “Reverse-Engineering a Genius (Has a Vermeer Mystery Been Solved?)”

Technique For Photographing Close To Animals

Maybe our own M. Scott Brauer, recently returned from a hunting trip in Montana, can give us some better advice than this guy, who just sort of hung out with an Elk while he was trying to take pictures. The video is awkward and asks a lot of questions.

Scott, did this guy do good? Should he have run away screaming? Or stood up and scared the Elk off? (Which was what I was rooting for). Or. better yet, gone for a close-up? Strange video.

(via Peta Pixel: Photographer Gets in a Tussle with an Elk, Fortunately Escapes Unharmed)

Alan Chin: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away

Alan Chin is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for his new project Toishan, China: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away. Chin’s project will take him back to his family’s home in the Toishan region of China, an area that is undergoing rapid development since his first visit in 1989. The fundraising campaign will run until October 28th but we are happy to report that Chin has already exceeded his initial goal. Congratulations to him, but the project is still worthy of support and we hope that with further fundraising he will have more time and flexibility with the project, something every photographer would dream of.

Chin answered a few of our questions about the new work, and I also encourage you to have a look at Chin’s Kickstarter video below and his fundraising page for more information about his plans for this project.

Tell me something about the region of China that your family comes from? How many times have you visited the area?

Toishan (or Taishan in official Mandarin Pinyin romanization), is about a hundred miles from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Two-thirds of all Overseas Chinese immigrants to the United States came from the greater Toishan area, until the 1960s. Today, Chinese-Americans hail from diverse regions in China, especially from Fujian, but for a hundred years that was Toishan.

I first visited in 1989, when I was eighteen years old. I was there again in 1997 and then many times in 2008 and 2009.

Do you still have family in Toishan that you are in contact with?

My last close relative was a great-aunt who died in 2009 after I saw her for the last time in 2008; I still have more distant cousins that live in the village.

What is the relationship between this area and Chinese-American communities, particularly in New York? Is immigration from this region still prominent?

Starting in 1965 with LBJ’s immigration reform to reunify families (as important a piece of landmark legislation as Medicare or the Civil Rights laws), the Chinese-American community expanded tremendously. And as the Cold War ended, commercial and diplomatic relations improved between China and the US. Individuals began to travel to-and-fro with much greater ease and frequency. Toishanese continue to emigrate abroad, but now are one of many Chinese clusters rather than the majority. The old part of New York’s Chinatown in Manhattan, dating from the late 19th century, was originally Toishanese and remains predominantly Cantonese. (Toishan is part of Guangdong, the Cantonese province.)

Are you going to be documenting Toishanese communities from both countries with your book?

Yes, but the emphasis is on China, on where we come from.

How do you plan to use your family’s photographs in this project? What are some of your favorite photographs in this collection that will help tell the story?

I will use some of my family photographs to track our specific history, which is typical of so many families. The oldest photograph we have is of my great-uncle, Sing Chin, who emigrated to Cuba in 1927 and then the US in 1935. The photo is a formal studio portrait from his time in Cuba. It shows him in a tropical suit, and he was younger then than I am now. I think it will help show just how transformative the 20th century was in its global impact of revolutionary change.

My favorite photographs? That’s too hard a question to answer!


Click image above to start Chin’s video about the project

This weekend NYC: The Fourth Annual Zine and Self-Published Book Fair

Camera Club of New York: The Fourth Annual Zine and Self-Published  Photo Book Fair

Camera Club of New York: The Fourth Annual Zine and Self-Published
Photo Book Fair

The Camera Club of New York is holding it’s 4th annual Zine and Self-Published Book Fair this weekend, Aug. 3-4, 2013, presenting work from North, South, and Central America. The event, which includes a lecture by Tony White, the Director of the Decker Library at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, is at 336 West 37th Street, Suite 206, New York, NY 10018-4212. There’s a list of artists featured on the event page here.

In a similar vein, you might want to check out The Newsstand at the Metropolitan Ave subway stop in Brooklyn, which continues throughout the summer and features many zines and books by photographers. And there’s always the Indie Photobook Library, which shows up at photo and art events and shows around the world (next in Tokyo) and which is also browsable online.

Valentino Bellini’s BIT ROT Project

Valentino Bellini wrote to us recently to share his new project BIT ROT, about the troubling issue of electronic waste worldwide that results from “rampant consumerism” and products that are “designed for the dump”. We really enjoyed the photographs and the story he was revealing to us, so we asked him to answer a few questions about the project. His responses were fascinating and we are happy to share his work.

Bellini is looking for more support to continue his project, and you can donate through the BIT ROT Project’s Support page on the project’s dedicated Tumblr.

Dvafoto: Where are you from? How did you come to photograph this project?

Bellini: I became interested in photography about 4 years ago when I moved from Palermo, my hometown, to Milan, where I attended a course at the annual CFP R. Bauer (a public photography school). Immediately after I graduated I started working at the LINKE. lab which offers various services for photography including fine art printing, post production, mounting and realization of photographic exhibitions.

During the first two years of my stay in Milan, during times when I could go back down in Palermo I started working on a photographic project about the Ghanaian community of Ballarò, a neighborhood in the historic center of the city. I’ve known several young Ghanaians with whom I have a great relationship now, this was probably the main reason that push me to visit Ghana in April 2012. Once in Ghana, among other issues, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph the e-waste dump of Agbobloshie, where I discovered the terrible world regarding the trafficking and disposal of e-waste in developing countries. (Ghana is probably the African country, along with Nigeria, where the flow of electronic waste is the growing fastest).

How are you doing the research for this work? Where are you traveling to to make the photographs?

I’ve got the opportunity to work with some guys from a Ghanaian NGO that works to improve the living conditions of Ghanaian children. After our first visit we jointly launched special projects addressed at all those young boys who work in Agbobloshie e-waste dump. From that experience, from the contact with those people, I felt the need to investigate this issue and to develop the project in other countries and on different levels of investigation. Then I continued in the last months, visiting Pakistan and India.

The project is now at a very important stage. Very soon I will visit China, the country with the highest numbers for import of e-waste from abroad, and also for domestic production (China is second only to the United States for the production of electrical and electronic equipment, and of course, this also increases the amount of electronic waste produced and disposed of). The project will then continue investigating other methods of waste disposal and recycling, including more green and sustainable methods implemented by world leaders industries in developed countries in Europe and the United States (in this series there are already images produced in two facilities of companies that do this kind of work, authorized by the government and in a clearly legal way, in Tamil Nadu, India).

I will focus also on those places that represent the cathedrals of the consumerism world, the places where the “induced” need is generated, the places that are fathers of all the problems mentioned above.

Are you being supported by any grant or other funding to work on this? What is your goal for how to present this work, where will it be seen?

This project was started by a very personal experience, and is currently funded, with many difficulties, all by myself. At the moment I’m in contact with several international magazines trying to get this first part of the work published, in order to collect funds to continue the project.

In parallel with the classical editorial channels, I also launched a website dedicated to the project, through which I have implemented a funding campaign, hoping that this will help to raise funds that will enable me to move forward in production. In addition to thinking about photographic exhibitions in the international photography circuit, one of my primary goals would be to be able to bring the work with some exhibitions, in very rough shape, in the same places where the photos were taken, inside the dumps, in the districts in which the disposal takes place. It would be a way to give back the work to those who are directly protagonist, as well as to try to sensitize the communities themselves who inhabit those places, which, much to my surprise, they are often not even aware of the problems that this kind of processes can create for human health and for the environment. For this I’m working with the guys at Ghanaian NGO and with other realities that slowly I also met in other countries I have visited.

What have you learned about electronic waste and its relationship with the culture of consumers of electronic products?

Concerning the flow of electronic waste and their disposal, it is definitely a very complex phenomenon that is constantly changing and very, very quickly. It is important to emphasize that the issue of waste disposal in some countries in the developing world (see Pakistan or Ghana) has two different aspects. Employment shortage and continuous internal migration stream which can be observed for several years now, especially among the younger population ranges, from rural areas to urban centers, makes an occupation such as the disposal of electronic waste particularly desirable, as it ensure at least the possibility to earn a little amount money, just enough for daily survival, condition, however, still difficult to reach among the poorest segments of the population.

On the other hand, the import, though often illegal, of electrical and electronic waste from Europe and the United States, has contributed in some way to improve access to certain types of technologies by those same poor people. In Pakistan, for instance, until a decade ago, for the vast majority of the population was almost impossible to buy even a television, let alone a computer. In this sense this illegal flow, it is always good to remember, gave to some people a new access to different forms of culture (like internet) that were not remotely conceivable a few years ago. The production of electronic waste today is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) estimated that in the coming years could grow up to 500%, especially in those countries where the domestic electronics industry (countries like China or India) is experiencing a period of exponential growth.

What is sure is that this issue is caused by a system. The Western system (whose differences with other cultures such as those of Asian or African countries are decreasing) increasingly is dominated by rampant consumerism. A system in which the value is not intrinsic in the object we buy, as in the possibility of being able to display it. This is also reflected in the project guidelines adopted by production houses of electrical and electronic components. The term “designed for the dump” expresses this concept very well. Producers prefer to build products that will have a short life and will be difficult to repair, so as to impose on consumers a continuous supply of these tools, producing huge amounts of waste that regularly end up on the other side of the globe illegally, and which is disposed of in a harmful way. Probably the way to try to break down the problem is to make the producers responsible, forcing them to implement more sustainable production lines (and consider that some electronic components release harmful substances, although in small amounts, throughout their life cycle). For sure we must rethink the legislation, both locally and supranational, to preserve tools like the Basel convention, one of the few mechanisms to control the international movement of toxic waste, including from electronics. For example, these rules are continuously circumvented by exporting second-hand items to developing countries, as a way to reduce the so-called digital divide.

A big job of responsibility will also need to exist in these communities disposing of the waste, to make it clear that this work is destroying human health as well as the surrounding environment.

The Making of Boogie’s Demons Project

Serbian photographer Boogie, known for his street photography from all over the world, has been working on a series of wet-plate collodion portraits in his hometown of Belgrade over the last few years, a project that he calls “Demons”. I had the chance to see the fascinating process of making this work up close in 2011 when I was photographed in his studio’s courtyard for an earlier version of the project. This year Boogie took delivery of a new custom-made 11×14 inch wet plate camera and he is pushing forward with new portraits (and still lifes). You can see a lot of the new pictures on his website for Demons.

He recently posted a link to this great behind-the-scenes video made by Stud 7 and Sima Film in Belgrade, which reveals somewhat how his massive camera works and the complicated chemistry that goes on to make the pictures happen. A cool little video that shows off Boogie’s process. The Tom Waits soundtrack and mad scientist vibe fits him too.