A recent article on Mashable got me thinking about these supply chains once again. It’s a short feature on photographer Marcus Bleasdale, who has been documenting the conflict minerals at the heart of our electronics, which are produced with items from tantalum, tungsten, and tin mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So much of the electronics we use are built on the backs of child soldiers and millions of dead, a war the world ignores but has killed more people so far than World War II. According to the Enough Project’s RAISE Hope for Congo, much of this war is fought over conflict materials:
Armed groups earn hundreds of millions of dollars every year by trading conflict minerals. These minerals can be found in all our electronic devices. Government troops and armed groups fight to control mines and smuggling routes, murdering and raping civilians to fracture the structure of society.
Locals in mining communities are forced to take part in the illicit mining economy. Money earned from the sale of conflict minerals is used for personal profit and to further violent causes.
And it’s not limited to Congo. In April, the Guardian pointed to tin mines in Indonesia’s Bangka Island that are unregulated and rely on child labor. This tin serves as solder for our gadgets, and the conditions of the mines, as depicted in the accompanying photos, are bad enough for grown adults. Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group in the United Kingdom, has also pointed to the devastation this mining wreaks on the surrounding environment.
A site like SourceMap shows the ebb and flow of our global trade and waste, but these images bring the stories home in a stark and powerful way. Yes, the images often read as patronizing and disempowering, and they rarely depict the complex array of social and economic pressures that lead individuals to work under these conditions. But because of the extreme difficulty for a foreigner to access these spaces, they are often the only images available to us. As such, they become an effective way to show what conditions in a mine are like, or what a devastating war looks like. And it’s from those conditions that our technologies are enabled.
Further up the development chain of course is the more famous story of Foxconn and the massive factories in China where electronics are assembled and produced (another complex story, as this Atlantic Wire piece suggests, since many young people actively seek out work in electronics factories). As Hyperallergic contributor Ben Valentine tweeted recently, being reminded of the source of our gadgets from our gadgets can be powerful:
I have iPhone girl as my phone background, and it's actually having a really intense affect on me… http://t.co/A5gPJ11NvN
— Ben Valentine (@Bennnyv) September 23, 2013
Here’s an app idea: what if a program could automatically place these photos on our phone backgrounds and computer desktops, reflecting each step in the production journey. As Bleasdale noted, we shouldn’t stop using our gadgets, but we should engage in great advocacy for fair and humane working conditions. Photos are a compelling, powerful reminder of what lies behind the data and stories of how our electronics are produced.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!