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.