Cairo to Cape Town: Africa’s plastic footprint

Alexander Mourant, photographer and participant on RAW Foundation’s journey through Africa, November 2015 – March 2016, talks about using photography to create awareness, social change and important solutions to single-use plastic waste. This is the first in a five part series which will chart the progress of Alexander’s project.

Ethics within documentary photography could be likened to that of a minefield with very blurred boundaries. Traditionally on the African continent documentary-style projects of marginalised individuals are supposedly objective, often deemed exploitative and I think a rather outdated mode of representation.

I planned before commencing this project to challenge this western tradition, to show a more singular and subjective viewpoint, strides away from the Afro-pessimism we see strewn across the media. The project will prove a challenge as the subject of plastic waste isn’t lightly conveyed. It would have to be done through fragments, people, landscape and still life to convey the true and often unheard story.

As social media networks have become so apparent in the digital age, myself and RAW Foundation will be updating regularly, opening dialogues between large organisations and individuals. Through photography and video we want our content to be accessible to an international audience.

PhotoVoice will have a unique insight into particular stories and interactions from the journey, all of which will explore the photographic medium and its triumph in creating social change.

Portrait from “Garbage City” 2015

Background

We rose early and made the drive out to southeast Cairo, to an area commonly called ‘Garbage City’. It was evident why we would be visiting – the micro-city is after all built on foundations of everyday rubbish, consisting of plastic, metal and cardboard.

Created in the 1960’s as a result of economic strife, Garbage City is a terrible consequence of a war between Egypt and Israel, which saw farmers emigrate North from the farmlands of the South. The people, although illiterate, settled in Cairo and sort to make a living entirely from scratch. They were intelligent enough to start collecting piles of rubbish from the streets to bring home. They sorted it; organic food fed to pigs, everything else classified according to colours and types and then sold to merchants.

Today, with help from the government, the people of Garbage City have modern machines to crush and wash materials. The population estimated at 60,000, with each house composed of 3-4 merchants.

The power of the photograph

I cracked the window and the smell was putrid. We parked and found a small café, filled with locals smoking shisha and drinking tea. We were greeted by a small boy. “Hello”, “Where you from?” We spoke to the locals and managed to strike up some great conversation with touches of humour, easing any tension.

It was suggested that we take a group picture on an iPhone. With curiosity the man sat next to me said yes. What followed could only be described as a frenzy, an explosion of interest and delight at witnessing and having a portrait taken. I quickly grabbed my cameras from the car to continue shooting on larger format.

Portrait from Cafe, "Garbage City." 2015

Portrait from Cafe, “Garbage City.” 2015

We walked through ‘Garbage City’ with an English-speaking man, greeted by everyone as we made our way through the narrow streets, observing the everyday sorting of rubbish and their process. I was overloaded with sensory information, adjusting the manual settings on my camera as I switched between landscape, still life and portrait – not to mention metering for some medium format exposures.

I no longer smelt the burning plastic or rubbish. I was filled with the exchange of welcomes and photographs, high fives, handshakes, that was all. My preconceptions of being a British white male (with a camera) entering uncharted territory, with understandably defensive locals was absolutely shattered. The whole situation conveyed the brilliance of photography’s innate ability – a deity of such universal communication – opening dialogues between every ethnographic group.

Paper and Plastic sorting, "Garbage City." 2015

Paper and Plastic sorting, “Garbage City.” 2015

We were interested in the story ‘Garbage City’ had to tell because of the large majority of plastic waste which can be found there. What we discovered was a revelation, a renewed understanding for what they do, how they live and how they recycle. The individuals of that community do more for the environment than most of us. In a contemporary twist of fate you could say they now farm rubbish. It’s time the importance of these individuals is highlighted.

I had a revelation on that day – that it was okay and dignified to photograph “ugly” sights without taking an ethical misstep. Allowing culture a sense of ambiguity through my vision.

Recycled plastic pellets, made in "Garbage City." 2015

Recycled plastic pellets, made in “Garbage City.” 2015

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