kevin mcelvaney – agbogbloshie

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Kevin McElvaney

Agbogbloshie

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Agbogbloshie is a suburb of Accra, Ghana and a former wetland (recreation area) surrounded by the Odaw River.
 About 10 years ago it started to become a dumpsite for illegal e-waste from the industrialized countries (EU, US, UK, China, India e.g.). Nowadays 500-800 shipping-containers with “donations” reach the Tema Harbour (close to Accra) every month. About 80% of these so-called donations, second-hand products or development-aids are fake labeled, because in reality the goods are no longer usable. Most of these hazard materials end up illegally in electronic dumpsites, such as Agbogbloshie. Agbogbloshie used to be known for its market, where you could buy cheap local fruits and vegetables, but the e-waste dumping turned it into a place where youngsters between 7-25 years smash stones against TVs, disassemble PCs/ Laptops and burn cables to get the copper out of it. Agbogbloshie is an environmental, ethical and social-economic disaster, as well as a major health concern. The 40,000 inhabitants themselves nicknamed this place “Sodom and Gomorrah”.

My aim was to get a more or less subjective point of view and to show the personalities of the people that (have to) work in Agbogbloshie. I have focused on the individuals for this project as opposed to the burning and processes that takes place. After an interaction with every “model”, I told them to take a near-by device and stand on top of it and look into the camera – nothing more was influenced or controlled and the shooting just took 5-10 seconds for each portrait. For me it is important to let the viewer see that I had some interaction with the people. Many documentary photographs give the viewer a feeling of separation from the subject, but I feel that it is important for a connection to be established.

The Series “Agbogbloshie” has been published in various media including The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Fox, Stern, Zeit, De Standaard, Daily Mail, and Dazed & Confused, and was featured on international TV and Radio stations.

Bio

Kevin McElvaney was born 1987 in the north of Germany, raised by a German father and Irish mother. After his A-Levels he moved to Hamburg to serve his civil-service and to study business administration, law and sociology. To finance his life as a student he freelanced for agencies and organizations, which took him around the world. This is the reason he decided to buy a camera one day – to save his impressions of places and experiences.

He has been a self-taught, freelance photographer since 2013.

Agbogbloshie is the first series he has published.

Related links

Kevin McElvaney

AGBOGBLOSHIE // STILL NOT SPONSORED

20 Responses to “kevin mcelvaney – agbogbloshie”


  • Important topic. Not sure about posing them on those pedestals though. My first thought was they look like trophies.

  • Very strong essay and an important story to tell. Such awful working conditions!

    Letting them stand on these objects brings the focus to the e-waste clearly. The essay is both about the people working among the waste, but it is also about the waste. So, when they are standing on it, it is clear that it is about both.

  • You have given us a vision of hell. I was skeptical when I read your statement because a good documentary photographer connects and shows the connections with good pictures – that said, as environmental portraits your innovations work exceptionally well and speak strongly both in terms of personality and documentation.

  • YAy! lets all go make some ‘fine art’ poverty porn picture stories for out CV’s.

  • Hey, sorry for the trophies observation. I’m at my most cynical before sunrise and especially before getting caffeinated. And in the last few weeks I’ve interviewed a Christian Missionary who worked in Kenya and a big game hunter who collected a lot of dead animal trophies from Botswana and other southern African countries, so Africa’s been on my mind. And of course I’m always thinking about photography. So first thing I had the trite thought about how since it’s ever more difficult to go to Africa and shoot animals with rifles, many people have turned to going to Africa to shoot people with cameras. I thought actually putting them on a pedestal and making them look like actual trophies was a nice way of attacking the problem metaphorically. Well, maybe “nice” isn’t the appropriate word.

    That’s bad, I know, but as the coffee was brewing I started to run with it. Why stop with one trophy on the field? Why not get multiple people to stand on pedestals in toxic waste dumps and arrange them in interesting formations like an Alex Webb photo? Or better yet, add a prostitute and a dog on their own pedestal. Or if you want the entire photo world to have a mass orgasm, include a prostitute from Iquitos and a dog in a car.

    Bad ideas all, I know, and once the caffeine kicked in and the sun came up and I read Bjarte’s comment, I was left thinking that the pedestal stunt might not be as bad as all that, but that still, it pretty much made it all about the photographer at the expense of the story. I thought that if the intention was to educate people about the problem of western companies dumping toxic computer parts on Ghana, there would have been much better ways to go about it. Which brings me to my general criticisms of these types of projects (granted, this may not be one of “these types”), which is that they skimp on the journalism. Who, for example, is responsible for these outrages? What companies, what government, which individuals? What are they actually sending there? Where are they sending it, if anyplace besides this one dump in Ghana? How long has this been going on? Why are they doing it? And under what laws? You know; who, what, where, when, why, and how? Without including a serious written story, there is a danger that these kind of things can com off as some ‘fine art’ poverty porn picture stories for out CV’s. Maybe that was done for the stories in the Guardian et. al.? I hope so. If posing poor people on pedestals in toxic waste dumps is just what one must do these days to get the attention of editors at high end publications, then that’s a different story.

  • This essay reminds me in many ways to Chien-Chi Chang book “The chain”… I wonder if this essay was also shot in the same amount of time.

  • JOHN GLADDY…..MW

    Guess what? I agree with you guys!!

    The “visual device” here gets in the way of what needs to be a more complete story…MW yes!! who, what, when , where, why, and how is pretty basic stuff for a story like this….so the text needs to simply have more information

    Paul hints this is something like Chien Chi’s The Chain…for sure it coulda shoulda been, but just is not quite strong enough visually to compete with Chien Chi….

    I did not see the standing on the trash bit as quite the same as a “pedestal”as MW suggests, but rather an individually rising above symbol, yet still this concept could have been done much better if it was to be done at all…

    Still on Burn I do like to show emerging photographers attempts as well as successes…African trash dump stories are plentiful and we see dozens…One of the big cliches in photojournalism these days….This is not to take away from the horror of these dump sites, yet photographers do seem to be attracted to whatever won in last year’s World Press and immediately jump on the bandwagon….This would be ok IF the story took us somewhere, since for sure a role of photojournalism is to inform of various atrocities..At the same time, if a photographer is going to do it, they should really do it…..

    I do commend Kevin for at least catching my eye a bit with this idea….It was different…..The story, if all told, is indeed worth telling….Yet I think Kevin stopped short…A common problem I see these days..Not quite FINISHING…

    There is a fine line between the offhand casual i did not try too hard look and something that is truly compelling….

    I look forward to more work from Kevin to see where he finally lands….

    Cheers, David

  • When both John Gladdy and MW take a position opposite mine, and then DAH chimes in to support their arguments, I feel no choice but to reexamine my thoughts. So I did:

    Yes, I agree: this could advance and go deeper.

    No – I disagree: This is not “poverty porn.” This is an honest endeavor by a talented photographer to take a story most eyes would pass quickly over and forget the moment they clicked out of it. Even if he did not go as far or dig as deep as the story could be taken, he succeeded in some real ways. After I looked at this the first time and went about my bushiness, images from it reappeared in my head throughout the day. This happens with some Burn eassys, but not all. To my mind, he did not place his subjects as trophies on pedestals, but symbolically demonstrated how they use this refuse of the more prosperous world in an effort raise themselves above the worst of it and to survive to hope and seek the next opportunity. This also causes one to considerable possible irony should the very instrument of their survival ultimately exposes them to contaminants that tear down and ultimately end their lives. In their faces you see everything from pride to frustration. The style he employs here is very much in keeping with the big majority of work he has shown on his website – environmental portraits where his subject is most often placed in or near the middle of the frame.

  • David is right, third world trash culture photos are common, and the pedestal device here (along with the annoying cross/processing treatment) seem to scream of exploitation and fine-art poverty chic. However, it does raise the question, “what do I need to do to get your attention”. As with any cliche subject, what can we bring to get noticed? All I know is that this one got my attention. Not that I’m likely to do anything about it, but is that really the point. Small steps towards universal justice, however small, are a step. I appreciate and admire your efforts here Kevin.

  • Hello there critics and supporters,

    Maybe I can give you some answers to these rumours, assumptions, interpretations, critics and defences.
    Because reading all this left a strange feeling after I read through this before I went to bed yesterday… as the photographer of this series.

    First of all i have to apologise for the missing details yes – after all these introduction texts and Q&A´s about this series its pretty bad if you are able to leave this out, but… no but.
    Long story short: I took these pictures in october 2013. Agbogbloshie is just a few minutes by car from accra, ghana and I met organisations and activists there. Why? Because this place, problem and the people catched my attention! Furthermore…

    Some of you described this feeling of picture-flashbacks during the day and same happened to me after I saw some pictures about agbogbloshie a few years ago… but I was far away from being a photographer these days and I´m still not really one. Anyway, I was just blown-away by the potential visual power there and besides that I was shocked about the facts I read: pretty good arguments for a (reportage) photographer to go there and I think it doesn´t really matter if someone has been there before or not – if you have a new/ different idea.
    So one day I decided to prepare myself for a journey to see this place with my own eyes, made my own contacts from nowhere, travelled there without expectations, but with bad equipment and a lot of pressure – as briefly described in the text, I never visited a photo-school before and I have no journalism-background, plus I just had a tiny budget to do this and no clue, that I could sell pictures afterwards (but it somehow works, as always).

    Yes: Many photoguys go to places like this and “just follow” some of these award-winners, but thats a good decision by young photographers like me I guess. We can´t just go somewhere and have a look if there may be some potential or not: its too risky in many ways. But for sure its crazy, if we all just follow the same topic and after 2 years no one is able to see pictures about a certain problem anymore = thats destructive. But there is a reason, why the leading (visual) investigative journalism is made by Magnum-Photographers and other geniuses.
    I was sleepless, when my thoughts were circling around the idea to go to Agbogbloshie and I don´t really know why, but in retrospect a town-ship in south-africa just kicked me in the face a few years ago and I started my first steps as photographer.
    So there is an emotional connection in me for topics like this: It was the first time, when I realised that prejudices really exist – and are very often wrong.

    So this is poverty porn? …because I´m travelling to a slum?!
    So this is fine art (poverty porn)? …because the pictures use post-production and follow a certain look?! Because they are “too beautiful” for a reportage/ docu and don´t really tell a story?

    Well, call me a pervert, because I´m capturing such things… but are all these editors from recommended news/ magazines are perverts like me then? Do the readers and viewers want to see this kind of porn?
    Yes, we are all driven by these emotions in us and sometimes things catch our attention and we want more… like in porn (?!). All you guys leaving a comment here at least had such a feeling.

    I just saw this huge potential for good and important pictures and had to let my feelings go and it is such a important story to tell (as Gordon and David also mentioned). It´s not just about poverty (a social-economic disaster), its also about the environment, ethics and long term problems we don´t want to realise, we don´t want to SEE… maybe all photographers know this place, but many people don´t!!!
    Just have a look at the various outcries in social-media and comment-sections.
    Especially young people haven´t seen this problem before and thats also a reason, why I let Dazed&Confused or Wild Magazine feature my pictures… somehow it fits to their demand and requirements for pictures – and i was sceptical about such “fashion like” magazines, but they came up with good arguments, when I “tested” them.


    Like in porn many viewers wanted more, but they wanted to KNOW more, which leads me to another critic here:

    Indeed many of these questions “mw” mentioned don´t find their answers through the picture, but therefore on my website and through the introduction text [unfortunately not here :( ].
These portraits don´t have to tell the full story, because this means for me, that I just take photos of the “things going on there”, to do the “typical thing to document things” and walk around like no one sees me – but these pictures already exist! …and I don´t like most of them, because you can´t see a connection and agreement from the “models” there. Often this is more paparazzi and I just prefer to let the people know, what I´m doing (most times).
    
I just tried to catch peoples attention by letting them look in the eyes of the people and let the background just give a tiny description about what´s going on…
 Thats a less pervert way of displaying such a disaster, than pictures like “Can you please stick you bloody hand in the brocken monitor?” or “Can you please show this label on the device, so everyone knows it comes from the US/ EU?” – and these sceneries exist there!



    To come to an end:
    
I want give a picture as much power as possible, especially if its about a story I want to tell the world – like all of you. Therefore I have to respect a few guidelines: show the truth, respect the people I capture, interact with them (don´t just take a picture and go) and give them something back. I did all this and on top all organisations and activists I met like the results and are happy, that this problem is getting more attention through my pictures again.
    
I hope this comes to an end shortly – and I hope I can support the good movements there in future.



    Thanks for your advices, I really will learn from a few ones, but I will still take the pictures that I want to take – which is not poverty porn!
 Maybe David is able to teach me a few basics in future ;) …I´m also looking forward to where I will finally land.

    

Best
    
- Kevin

  • GORDON FROSTFROG

    Yes, this work obviously got my attention as well…and i would agree with Frostfrog in theory IF perhaps the work had simply been crafted a bit better….it feels to me like one of those “almost made it” attempts….again, i often like the very casual offhand look….too much styling here might not have worked either….yet i think one can tell when this look is intentional or just not that well thought out…

    I too commend Kevin for at least trying something a bit different on a cliche subject….it is too bad as well that we almost have become de-sensitized to this sort of thing by seeing so much of it….all the more reason to really do it well….to make us KNOW for sure 100% the full visual intent….

    My wish is for Kevin to explore more….to take this as a first step to do something deeper if indeed this is his mission….

    Thanks for listening Kevin. All is intended as constructive critique.

    Cheers, David

  • This is a cliche subject?

  • WINDUP

    yes…trash dump stories are numerous and right up there with transvestite stories as almost a category of their own when we see the 1,000 or so entries for the EPF and as i jury various contests and grants….

  • DAH,

    How about “family” stories/essays? it seems it has become a genre….photographers taking pictures of their families growing up. How many of those do you see as entries for the EPF and in general?

  • Kevin, please don’t see the critics here as people who are not also supporters. Criticism is an important element in growing as a photographer. I’ve had my ass handed to me by a couple editors, and I’m better for it. If people were not supporters, they simply would not bother to comment. As it is, you have gotten peoples’ attention. That’s not nothing.

    As far as a trash dump story a cliché, I don’t care. It’s something that has importance. If something has been shot to death, I say go for it anyway. Nothing may come from it outside of the experience, but the challenge of trying to capture something from a unique point of view is a worthy use of your time.

  • Kevin, bit late in the game here.. either way,

    When reading the text, I immediately recalled a podcast I’d listened to. Your photographs filled an image gap perfectly, and no doubt your photographs and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah will be with me for a very long time.

    While I’ve cant remember seeing it around here, I believe that a combination of spoken word and stills can work very well, when faced with relatively abstract images (e.g. those that can easily be taken out of context).

    A somewhat related example of what I am talking about is Paul Fusco’s Chernobyl essay; http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/chernobyl

    The podcast in mention is phonemically good; http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/library/989-children-of-sodom-and-gomorrah.

    Cheers,
    Peter

  • Thanks Peter,
    May be something for an exhibition I´m working on. Great great & thanks for the Advice!

  • CARLO

    yes, that is another one….somehow, however, i always tend to gravitate a bit more towards these “family stories” more than the other cliches because they are indeed so personal and tend to be a bit more emotional and thought provoking…the last EPF winner, Diana Markosian, did in fact have an essay on her father….i do not rule out anything….somebody always does the “cliche” better than someone else…

    KEVIN

    i agree 100% with Brian Frank….after all we did publish your essay here…you caught our eye….only after looking at the essay literally dozens of times, did i finally come to the conclusion you might have crafted it a bit better..

    again, please do consider Chien Chi Chang’s “The Chain” and Paul Fusco’s “Funeral Train”…both of these essays were also literally shot in a few hours…both became classics…

    nobody cares if a great essay was done in a day or in a year or in ten years….what does make an essay leave a final mark is if purveyors see the intent and the final result resonate in a way that is solid…clear…finely tuned….

    this is all a part of “seeing” on the spot so to speak and built around a framework of super conscious intent…i think the “jurors”of work can see the difference…this ability to judge, albeit always subjective, comes from looking at lots of work…historic context….an awareness of who has done what, when, and the final results…

    please stay in touch, and please let me see any new work and/or projects…the door here is open….

    cheers, david

  • but I will still take the pictures that I want to take – which is not poverty porn!
………. Once you present your work to an audience you relinquish full ownership, jumping up and down and telling the audience how to think and see just falls on deaf ears. Accept that some consider it as poverty porn, for some it may touch a raw nerve, some they will see it all with a sympathetic melancholy, some will deem the work as important others just ignore what you do.

  • This is one of the few photo essays that I’ve viewed repeatedly. It stands apart from the clichéd way that many of us take photos, and I find it hard to relate to the cheap-shot criticisms such as ‘poverty porn’.

    The focus is strongly on the individuals rather than the imported toxic trash, and placing them on pedestals seems to reflect their dreams for a better life by rising above the awfulness of their daily existence.

    The story doesn’t have a conclusion, and their bleak existence probably doesn’t have one either.

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