“Agbogbloshie” was not an easy project to work on – there were highs and lows – but the experience translated to significant personal growth for me. Over the course of six weeks I grew close to Awal Mohammed and his family in the Accra, Ghana slum Agbogbloshie. As he opened up his life to me, I did the same with him. We shared laughter over our language barrier and cultural differences. And when there was a dangerous or concerning situation, Awal was quick to protect and help me.
Many in the Agbogbloshie community believe that no one has the right to photograph them — there is a feeling that too many photographers had made money off of their despair. But Awal helped me to explain to his neighbors that I was documenting their lives and struggles, not profiteering.
A riot broke out in the community after the government demolished some homes in the area, and I found myself in the middle of the action. Salt bullets from riot control police were spit at us, while the sting of tear gas filled our noses. Across from where I was standing, a group of Ghanaians did not understand the motives behind using my camera – and, thinking I was taking advantage of the situation, they shoved me to the ground. But Awal explained to the opposing group what I was doing; photographing the injustices committed against them.
They joined with us and suddenly, the group formed a protective tunnel around me. Many of the community members stood in front of my camera, wanting their injustices to be recorded. At that moment I felt more like a documentary photographer than I ever had before. Here was a group of people asking me to give them a voice, and I was able to do so with my camera.
I believe documentary photography should never be one-sided – with the photographer separated from their subject’s reality by a viewfinder. I think it is necessary to not only give back to the people we are documenting, but to also open yourself to the struggle and pain of those you are advocating for.
Click on images to expand, or scroll over for a clearer image.
Awal Mohammed is a migrant worker in his mid 20’s. He leads a group of boys in burning imported electronic waste in Ghana’s largest city, Accra. On Average, each boy earns less than 20 USD a month Ð yet the job poses extreme health risks. In this image- Awal Mohammed burned electronic waste to extract precious metals.
Awal Mohammed, a young migrant worker, looks for electronic waste in the dump located in Agbogbloshie, a slum that home to 100,000 Ghanaians.
Awal Mohammed roams through a cloud of smoke while burning electronic waste. Seven highly toxic metals have been found in the urine and blood of people living in Agbogbloshie. Ghana reportedly receives 40,000 tons of electronic waste every year. Electronic waste workers are usually self-employed and make $20 USD per month, according to a study by Ghana Health Studies and GreenAdvocacy.org, and Hunter College in New York, 2009-2012
Awal Mohammed (right) and a young migrant worker sort through electronic waste. Awal leads a group of boys in burning imported electronic waste. On average, each boy earns less than $20 USD a month, even though the job poses extreme health risks.
Awal Mohammed sorts through some bundled copper reclaimed from electronic waste.
On a Saturday morning in June 2015, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) demolished the homes of over 20,000 people in Agbogbloshie to dredge the waterways and avoid the floods that affect the city every year during the rainy season. Awal Mohammed and his friends watch from a distance.
Protestors gained momentum as they ran towards Ghanaian riot control while clashing in Agbogbloshie. Over 20,000 people were evicted from the shoulders of the Odaw River and the Korle Lagoon.
Awal Mohammed runs towards the protest with fires burning in the background.
The intense heat of the bonfire keeps most protestors and riot control from crossing a bridge. Awal Mohammed, acclimated to the extreme heat from his work, tried to rally fellow protestors.
Residents threw rocks at police vehicles. Others crouched to avoid salt bullets fired by the police. Tear gas filled the air during the protest.
Awal Mohammed, a resident of the slum, stood atop his demolished home. In June, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) brought bulldozers into Old Fadama to widen and dredge the waterways that surround the slum. The residents had been warned of an impending demolition since January, but recent and dangerous flooding spurred a more aggressive demolition. Over 20,000 people were evicted from the shoulders of the Odaw River and the Korle Lagoon. Awal built his home by hand three years ago.
Awal Mohammed’s wife Sadaa , managed to save some of their possessions from the wreckage of their home. She rode with their possessions to the bus depot, while Mohammad walked alongside.
After returning to Awal Mohammed’s family home in Tamale, Ghana, Sadaa’s sister looked at family photos while Awal held onto Harana, his five-year-old son.
Awal reunited with his son after one year apart. Haruna is five years old and lives with Awal’s parents in Tamale. He attends school next door and he often has to go to the hospital for poor health.
Awal Mohammed bathed at his parent’s home for the first time following the turmoil of the week, during which his home was demolished. His parents were able to make room for him and his wife, Sadaa, to stay with them temporarily.
A week after migrating to Tamale, Ghana, Mohammed returned back to Accra, Ghana to build a new home and to find work. He looked at his phone to read a message from his wife.
William Martin grew up on the West Coast in Southern Oregon. He is a 22-year-old senior at New York University studying Photography and Imaging. Martin aspires to be a documentary photographer and is working towards this goal by photographing different communities around the world. He was recently awarded Gold in the global 69th College Photographer of the Year Awards for his photo essay depicting a Cuban family. He was also awarded the Thomas Drysdale production fund to continue his work in Cuba.
Currently he is documenting a monastery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Looking ahead, Martin is researching project ideas for spring in New York City. He will be returning to Cuba in summer of 2016.