Reassembling Rubbish

How do we know e-waste? Electronic discards and the double social life of photography and video methods

Arguably one of the most influential documents in the e-waste archive (broadly conceived) is a 2002 report by the environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO) Basel Action Network (BAN) called Exporting Harm. According to Scopus, as of 24 February 2014 the document has been cited 165 times, making it the fourth most cited document of 1,825 documents that contain "e-waste" or "electronic waste" in their title, abstract, or keywords.

A key genre of methods that the report relies on is documentary photography (samples of which are available here) and, in the video version of the report, documentary film. As Rose (2001: 20) writes,

Documentary photography originally tended to picture poor, oppressed or marginalized individuals, often as part of reformist projects to show the horror of their lives and thus inspire change. The aim was to be as objective and accurate as possible in these depictions.

Reports on e-waste from other influential ENGO's such as Greenpeace also rely on the same sorts of method assemblages as the BAN report and video do. Arguably it is the original intentions of the documentary genres in both photography and film that form some of the key methodological hinterlands that these reports rely on for their claims to being sources of trustworthy knowledge. As genres, documentary photography and film draw on the hinterland of witnessing, especially first-person or eye witnessing for their authority to claim trustworthiness about that which they are claiming to have knowledge. There is, of course, a long tradition of critical analysis that questions such underlying assumptions - and similar claims about framing, picturing, representation, and the like could be raised about the images made and mobilized by BAN and other ENGOs. To join that kind of critical conversation we might want to note how, in the written report, images and texts work together in a rhetorical strategy designed to invoke a particular kind of witnessing - the modest witness - an issue I've written about here.

Documentary photography and video used in ENGO reports on e-waste partly generate the phenomenon being documented, its sites, and various connections between those sites and the witnessing subject, including moral and emotional connections. They generate a world. What do I mean? Exporting Harm relies on modest witnessing so as to bolster its claims about several findings. The first finding listed in the report's summary is that "[m]illions of pounds of electronic waste (e-waste) from obsolete computers and and TVs are being generated in the U.S. each year and huge amounts - an estimated 50%-80% - are being exported" (BAN 2002: 4). That figure of 50-80 percent has moved, circulated well beyond BAN's 2002 report. By 2009 it circulated as a background fact in an US Congressional hearing on electronic waste reuse, reduction, and recycling (United States Congress, 2009). In the written testimony of that hearing under a section called 'Background' it states, "[a]ccording to the Basel Action Network (BAN), approximately 80 percent of the e-waste directed to recycling in the U.S. is not recycled, but is instead exported" (United States Congress, 2009: no page number); and in her statement prepared for the hearing representative Eddie Bernice Johnson states,

It really is stunning to know that the United States exports 80 percent of its electronic waste to other countries. It is shameful that much of that waste goes to developing countries like China, where workers disassemble televisions and computers, often at great hazard to their health. The waste then goes into landfills in those countries, putting vulnerable people at risk for toxic ground and water pollution (United States Congress, 2009: no page number).

Note this 'knowing'. If the text of the Congressional hearing is taken on its own terms, then the 50-80 percent figure is 'background', it is a known fact. As I discuss in more detail here, part of the hinterland of this knowing is the literary technique of modest witnessing common to scientific reference and expert testimony. Notice, for example, the deference to presumed authority in the 'Background' of the Congressional hearing ('according to BAN....'). In other words, it is not us, members of the US Congress, but someone else, someone else with trustworthy authority who claims that 50-80 percent of US e-waste is exported.

I think one of the reasons documentary methods like photography and film are so powerful - that is, that they come to circulate, inform, and have active force - is precisely because they are able to draw on the hinterland, the method assemblages, suggested by Rose above. Perhaps this is obvious. On the other hand, the extent to which Exporting Harm and documents like it inform the e-waste archive suggests that this obviousness is something that is also taken for granted as unproblematic. In the e-waste archive there is still a pervasive sense that methods such as photography and video give us access to unvarnished raw fact, as the citational biography of Exporting Harm seems to suggest.

This page has paths:

This page references: