Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Photographer's Perspective on Trash

Last term, Catherine Berman shadowed the waste monitors to see what gets thrown away on campus and what we as waste monitors find through our work. Here's the photo project she produced from the trip for The Lens magazine:

Landfill: A fractured mirror and a paper plate

            One of my first interactions with Jackson was when he offered to share the bacon and eggs that he was frying. “You went to Econo this morning?” I asked. “No,” he said, without missing a beat, “I found this in the trash.” The next week he brought home a blender he fixed himself, also found in the trash. Then, rope that he used to hang his clothes between trees in the backyard.  Then syrup and pencils, when I was no longer phased.
            I learned that Jackson is part of the trash crew at Carleton, a team of students that started out sealing bags of smelly, beer-filled trash on Saturday mornings as their campus job.  Noticing how much waste was improperly sorted in the recycling, landfill, and compost bins, they petitioned to expand their job to collecting data about improperly sorted trash.  Beyond a job, it’s a practice that has changed their lives.
            Two weeks ago, I spent Saturday morning attending the trash crew clean-up and learning about what this work means to three of the members, Jackson VanFleet Brown, Henri Sandifer, and Andrew Woosnam.  More than an off-beat hobby, this work is based in deep conviction.  Henri firmly believes that germs and bacteria build the community inside our bodies and that we need not fear trash so much.  And, he points out, anything organic that comes from a life (even hair and nails), is compostable, which speaks to the interconnectedness of the world. Most importantly, Henri and Jackson see the trash as a kind of ‘truth dump’ that tells us about how we treat our resources and our own bodies: it’s a private place we’ve agreed not to look, but when we do look, we find that what we consume is as disturbing as what we waste.
            The photographs show the objects that these three collectors have saved and other objects that we found together on this Saturday morning clean up. To me, this project represents how three people can carry what they believe into what they put in their bodies, touch with their hands, and fix with their time (a blender for Jackson, a lava lamp for Andrew, and four pairs of pants with holes in the crotch that Henri doesn’t plan on fixing but will wear anyway). 
Formally, I used lighting, negative space, and a mock-up studio that resurrected the sacredness of this work and the beliefs that the objects represent.  The content and form of this project were strongly influenced by three still-life photographers: Olivia Parker, Rosamond Wolff Purcell, and Laura Letinsky.
These photographers all elevate the objects to another level of perception. Parker points out, “Reading objects, archaeologists search for meaning in bones, earth, and stone. Today, some anthropologists try to figure us out by checking out our garbage. What if each cereal box, grapefruit rind, and hub cap were perceived to have its own moving spirit?” She shows the spirit of the object not just in the way she positions it (as a sitting, hanging, or falling object), but in the way it dissolves into the darkness that is then interrupted by a glow of light or a setting sun.  Similarly, Laura Letinsky is highly aware of the lighting and space in her photographs, using soft light that dances across a table or harsher rectangles from windows.  This form elevates a decaying apple core and a crystal glass to the question she is after in her work: how can we show intimacy in human relationships through what remains, through what has sustained our physical bodies?  How can a photograph flatten a beautiful and decaying thing in the same plane?
Finally, Rosamond Wolff Purcell, a photographer fascinated by the obsession of collecting, has influenced my work.  She has photographed collections all over the world, ranging from dice collections, to Peter the Great’s Kuntskamera museum, to scientists’ collections of monkeys and bats preserved in glycerin.  She believes that the qualities that collectors possess are the ones that “distinguish[] people of true accomplishment.”  The collectors she worked with, she writes, “all believed passionately in the value of their work; they were driven, sometimes at the cost of life or sanity, by this conviction, this urge to collect, to bring part of a limitless diversity into an orbit of personal or public appreciation.”  In my own work, I wanted to use the lighting, space, and form of a sculptural accordion book to similarly illuminate the perseverance, activeness, and principle that Henri, Jackson, and Andrew show in touching and saving everything from a fractured mirror to a paper plate. 


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