Going up in smoke
This is where your technology goes to burn

The most overwhelming part was the smoke.

Plumes of it snaking up into the air. Twisting and tugging away from the plastic pieces and copper wiring that blanketed the grounds of the slum on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana.

(Michael Ciaglo)

"It's nauseating, the burning," photographer Michael Ciaglo says of Agbogbloshie, the "digital dump" that he spent a summer shooting. "It's not like a campfire, where you can move out of the way and that's that. It burns differently."

(Michael Ciaglo)

Ciaglo, age 23, is now on staff with the Colorado Springs Gazette, but a journalism program two summers ago in the African country left him with a project that still prompts visceral memories.

"I remember when I was done (shooting) one day, I went to meet my friends, and they were at the beach," Ciaglo says. "I get there and they're all splashing in the water. Here I am, I have this horrible headache, and my shoes and pants are black, just black."

(Michael Ciaglo)

(Michael Ciaglo)

Before he ever set foot in Ghana, Ciaglo knew he wanted to visit and, if possible, photograph Agbogbloshie. It's an illegal settlement, home to a bustling e-waste enterprise where workers burn down the world's discarded electronics, extract the copper wiring within, and sell off the element for cash (a "good haul" fetches about $3.35).

Ciaglo stumbled upon stories about the slum while studying journalism as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. Passing interest turned to burning fascination, and the project was taking shape in the young photographer's mind by the time he arrived in Accra.

(Michael Ciaglo)

"It felt like I was jumping into the deep end," Ciaglo says. "I'd gotten used to the main part of the city, but this was very different. There were a lot of shacks, pollution, and here's the media: White kid, 6-foot-2, doesn't exactly blend in. I knew a little bit of Twi, but these guys (working in the slum) came from the north, and they spoke Ga, so it was really interesting trying to get them comfortable with me being there."

"I wanted them to realize that I wasn't there to exploit them, but to try and make a difference."

For Ciaglo, that meant riding along with the workers in a converted van, originally meant to carry 10-15 occupants, but jerryrigged to hold up to 25 people. It meant stepping into the workers' on-site homes, "which are basically these little boxes," he says.

(Michael Ciaglo)

(Michael Ciaglo)

Eventually, Ciaglo did feel as though he was connecting with some of the slum's workers and getting a look at the "real" Agbogbloshie. Of course, that also meant receiving reminders of just how different a place he was visiting.

"One day, I was out in a giant field, right next to where these guys are burning their stuff," Ciaglo says. "I turned around and was watching people just walking through this field that's basically a landfill, and I saw one guy, and I had a long lens on, so I zoomed in on him, and I see him start to bend over. I think, 'Oh, he's going to pick something up.'"

"But instead, he just pulls down his trousers and goes to the bathroom," he says. "It made me realize: This is not a 'normal' field by our standards. This is not a 'normal' place by our standards."

(Michael Ciaglo)

That feeling colors the photos Ciaglo is already making in his mind, should he manage to get back to Agbogbloshie someday.

"At this age, I can look back at work from a year ago and just be disgusted at stuff I (photographed)," he says. "I sit there and think, 'Oh, I could have done so much more, there's so much left, and if I could go back for even a week, I could blow this one out of the water.'"

**See more photos by Michael Ciaglo**



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