Journalist reveals human cost of smartphones in DRC
War correspondent Karim Ben Khelifa has created an augmented reality app that takes users to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country of crushing poverty despite its immense natural wealth. Young boys and men are forced to work for armed rebels and shady middlemen who control the mines where precious minerals are found for our smartphones and other electronics.
To view the Seven Grams experience, you need an iPhone and headphones. It sounds like a paradox when you realize that the journalist denounces the very practices that presided over the manufacture of the telephone, but it is part of the plan.
You press start and a picture of a mobile phone appears. When you click on it, it explodes into tiny fragments that appear to be floating in the air. A rotating globe then appears before your eyes: welcome to the world of augmented reality.
From there the reporter voice then tells you all about the seven grams of tiny precious minerals that are needed to run your phone and, most importantly, where they came from and how they got there.
Belgian-Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa was in the DRC on another project in 2015 when he had the opportunity to visit mines in the east of the country.
He made a few black and white photos there, visible on the walls of the Radar gallery, as part of the Bayeux Calvados-Normandie 2021 series of exhibitions.
In the Seven Grams app, Khelifa introduces us to Chance, who, as the name suggests, is one of the lucky ones. He was only a young boy when he was forcibly recruited as a child soldier for one of the local rebel groups (Mai-Mai) in eastern DRC. However, he managed to escape.
Chance’s story is told using animated scenes, based on black and white drawings originally made in charcoal by artist TT Hernandez. Khelifa says the medium adds a “texture” that reminds us of minerals.
“It allows us to tell a story with a lot of sensitivity,” he says – and while it alludes to violence, it’s nothing compared to what Chance experienced in real life.
Much like his VR experience The Enemy, looking at both sides of a war, Khelifa invites the viewer to literally “step into” the problem and understand it from a 360 degree perspective.
There are thousands more, like Chance, who are stuck behind, working in illegally operated mines – sprawling, desolate places, with makeshift shacks built into the hillsides.
Boys and men spend 12 hours a day digging with their hands for the minerals that make smartphones, touchscreens and more powerful batteries vibrate.
They are covered in dust for a daily wage that does not exceed the price of two bottles of water.
On the gallery walls, we see displays of rain boots, ripped pants that haven’t been washed in months, a rusty machete, a burlap sack. Nothing more to protect workers from poisonous dust.
“I was really trying to go from digital to physical, and with that, it brings a kind of reality,” Khelifa told RFI, explaining why he wanted to bring back these fragile everyday items from a hell hidden before the eyes of the world. .
Nearby, plexiglass enclosures line the walls containing chunks of tungsten, cobalt, cassiterite (a tin oxide mineral), and rock with a tiny sheen of gold. These are all elements that large companies are scrambling to secure their production lines, at the lowest cost.
The mines are controlled by competing rebel groups, which sell the minerals through a complex web of markets and middlemen, finding their way into the factories of multinationals like Apple, Samsung and Huawei, as well as many automakers.
In his application, Khelifa asks us how is it possible that the DRC, with mineral resources estimated at around 24 trillion US dollars, can only be 175e out of 181 on the human development index?
A 2019 US geological survey showed that the DRC produced 100,000 tonnes of cobalt, compared to Russia’s 6,100 tonnes, followed by 3,000 in Canada.
Call to action
While he says he would like to see this kind of app used in schools in the future, to raise awareness, Khelifa wants to do more than just educate the public. He wants them to act.
“I really wanted to teach people, but I also want to give them a solution, not just tell them that there is a problem with the smartphone and electronics in general,” he says.
By revealing business practices, consumers can choose to buy products from manufacturers who do not purchase their metals from illegal mines and who choose to recycle rather than produce more raw materials.
Now you can’t say you didn’t know.
* The Seven Grams phone app (in English and French) is an augmented reality experience by Karim Ben Khelifa, co-developed by LucidRealities, France TV Lab, POV Spark and Think-Film. It can be downloaded for free with Google Store and Apple Play.
The Seven Grams exhibition is part of the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy War Correspondents Awards, presented at the Le Radar gallery in Bayeux until October 31, 2021.