Recycling Rubbish

Many of you know those spectacular images of burning computer parts and beautiful, sad young men, taken in some God-forsaken corner of polluted Ghana where the ‘West’ has dumped all its obsolete toys to be ‘recycled’.

Now, here’s Southern Africa’s answer: we can do apocalyptic burning and degraded human beings on rubbish tips, too. Portuguese photographer Jose Ferreira’s images of the “Trashland of Maputo” , taken in the dump of Huléne (just a few meters from Maputo’s airport), are supposedly meant to make us move beyond the “caricatures of the poor and homeless, who are often camouflaged between common jokes and cartoons from the civilized world.” He adds that  the people in these images, “who have empty eyes and shapeless smiles,” make the experience of their lives “more human.”

It’s not that lives like this do not exist; it’s not that this is a compelling subject (why do we allow such suffering? Why permit such degradation in fellow human beings?), or unworthy task to force those who are either ignorant of such suffering, or usually like to turn the other way to really stand and contemplate the lived reality of these Others. It may be that Ferreira makes us think about all that we discard. But there’s something that’s rehashed here – too much of the whiff of exploitation, for the value of shock, rather than an invitation into a space of contemplation (and possibly, towards action).

And please: I know this isn’t about computer parts, or the discards of the West. But if you want to make your mark as photographer, why copy Pieter Hugo’s “Permanent Error“?



Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Senior editor at Africa is a Country.

  1. You might object to the photographer's framing of the images, but those are real people and a real situation, regardless. Actually after reading yr commentary closely you seem to concede everything and really seem to be complaining because of a personal reaction. did a story on e-waste in Ghana that's worth checking out tho i suspect you'll have the same objections.

  2. I really appreciate your response to this series of photographs. Whether or not it is a personal rather than objective reaction is not the point. It is your opinion, point blank. I agree with you in that this is yet another European version of exploitation. If he wanted to capture poverty and humanity side by side, why not shoot people in his home country? Make no mistake, there are people who live below the line of poverty in Portugal as well. Why is it that poverty is a condition reserved to Africans, or darker skinned individiuals at large? If someone could answer that for me, I would be very grateful.

  3. Indeed, beyond 'personal reaction' or 'complaint' (words/phrases that attempt to take the power of a more objective critique by making a valid observation into 'emotional'/private whining/dislike), my objections are about exploiting those who experience inhumanity. Provoking pity, disgust, horror is not an invitation to see humanity – it creates distance, separation, difference between the viewer and the thing they see. It also makes the viewer, vastly 'better off' in material terms, feel 'better than', not closer to the subjects in the images (or see our common humanity). So typically, disgust/revulsion/difference do not provoke a reaction beyond guilt (a non-progressive emotion), and the accompanying stultifying inaction. Thusly, the problem with these "look at the suffering poor people and dirty children" – in whatever country. See Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others.

  4. Answer me this: Who have these photographers robbed of their land? Who have they caused injury to? Who have they robbed of a father or brother by sending them down a mine-shaft every day for 20 years? Since when did artists have to be these faultless, virtuous people? I'm tired of all these art critics upholding artists and musicians to these impossibly high moral standards. We're just trying to make an honest buck and stay out of trouble, as JJ Cale said. But what did the art industry have to say about a shyster like Brett Kebble? How many people died making him and his daddy rich? But we all lined up to suck his dick when he waved some dollars in our faces. These photographers hurt nobody while the captains of industry have taken us to the brink, and the art world raises not a squeak. Identity an important issue for humanity? Puhleese… Get real

  5. 1. The west does not ‘dump’ rubbish in Africa. All world governments are complicit in dumping their cast off crap on each other. It is called business.

    2. Photographers take photographs. They are not there to make comparisons between Beverly Hills and Soweto (or any other combo you can imagine).

    3. All art is in some way exploitative, and these photographs are no different.

    5. The photographer in question has a far superior eye to Pieter Hugo – who in my view is a rank amateur.

    6. I like to see all photographs like this. It informs me of circumstances of which I might otherwise be unaware, and makes me consider what I can do to support people in these situations (and yes I do support).

    7. Why don’t these so called ‘art’ critics just STFU?

    8. Peace…..

Mailing List

Sign up for email updates!


Not the continent with 54 countries

©Africa is a Country, 2016