When choosing what kind of camera I’d use for my Photo Essay Assignment, “Here is Your Garbage“, I was a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities. Vaseline on a lens? Disposable cameras? Once again, I was forced to consider the technological dimension of composition, and how it is tied to the quality and effect of what I create. I’d have to make a decision that wasn’t based off of mere convenience; I’d have to consider exactly what I was trying to capture, and let that inform my decision on what type of camera to use.
When I decided on taking pictures of trash, I concluded that texture was a huge element that I’d want to capture. I wanted to show trash in shocking detail and texture—from the small pieces of glass blending into the sand, to the countless discarded items stacked in piles and heaps. To capture such detail, I concluded that a DSLR camera would best serve my needs. Using a Nikon D3100, I didn’t feel limited by the touchy focus of a camera phone, nor by the blurry, sharpness-lacking pictures from a disposable camera.
Once I had the camera, I still needed to know what to look for. The landfill, of course, contained a lot of trash. This place was definitely the easiest site to gain material. All over the place were piles of trash—televisions, chairs, tires, glass, plastic, paper. It was grotesque to see trash in such volumes, and capturing it made a powerful punch for my photo essay. But the photos from this place alone only showed half of what I wanted to show about trash. I wanted to show garbage in more mundane, approachable contexts.
I headed into Philadelphia the next weekend to take my last round of photographs. This was after our in-class workshop, so I had a fresh new set of questions and a sharpened critical sense to bring with me. When I got there, there were plenty of trash cans and dumpsters to choose from along with some construction sites with debris that would, as I presumed, get sent to a scrap yard—or perhaps even a similar landfill to the one I photographed the weekend before. It was all great, but I knew there had to be more, subtle things that I was missing. I was, after all, a member of my own audience; I needed to find the ‘waste’ that I and everyone else overlook.
I started looking in smaller places—areas behind the dumpsters in back alleys, potholes, the open spaces in sewer drainages. I found that these smaller places contributed just as much as the epic, voluminous heaps I had been photographing prior. For instance, I walked past the soda can lodged in the sewer drainage bars several times before seeing meaningful and aesthetic value to it. First of all, the diagonal lines of the metal bars served as an aesthetically-pleasing background to the can, which was so perfectly lodged between them. It cried out its own meaning—trapped in a sort of unintentional net from the hidden, underground collection of disposed cans beneath it—an unwanted but inevitable result of our consumption and disposal habits.
It was easy for me to manipulate them in Picasa after the fact. I scrupulously cropped every picture in my Photo Essay, but I also took some editing a bit further. I found that adding sharpness to some pictures intensified the texture. This came in handy for close-up pictures in particular, highlighting every little wear-crack in the shoes on page 16.
Also, adding saturation to my pictures made them a lot more vivid, and even retracted the view from the textures to the colors and text as was effective in some cases. My picture of the “All Natural Clean” container on page 4, for instance, was a lot more dependent on the text on the container than each individual piece of trash behind it. So, by adding saturation to the photo, I shifted the focus to the larger, bolder text—highlighting the irony of the words “natural” and “clean” on a plastic container in a landfill.
Finally, I feel that the soft focus tool in Picasa was fantastic—almost like a semiotic cheat code to bring the viewers’ focus to what I want them to see. In the picture wherein the bulldozer is pushing trash across a pile on page 5, I used the soft focus to direct the reader to the trash that is being pushed. Conveniently, this included an intact chair and what appears to be a suitcase. Now, the viewer can see the trash pile for its parts.