Californian photographer Gregg Segal tells carefully constructed stories that have a story teller’s sense of theme, irony and a penchant for drama. His ongoing project, 7 Days Of Garbage, shows ordinary people with their seven days worth of waste. He shared his thinking on the project with us.
The seeds for this project have been germinating for a long time – ever since I began considering how much we Americans consume and how much garbage we produce. I’m reminded, each week, as we all roll our immense garbage cans to the curb, often loaded to the brim (I requested a smaller can from my sanitation company because the standard size is just too big for my needs).
The average American generates about 28 pounds a week, I found. Multiply that by 321 million – the U.S. population. Where does our 9 billion pounds of garbage go each week? Though I’m not an environmental activist, I am concerned – not only by how much we consume and throw away, but by how blind we seem to be to all the waste and how blithely we go about our routine of carting our vast quantities of garbage to the curb each week.
I set out to create pictures that make the trash problem impossible to ignore. I asked friends, family, neighbors, friends of friends and other acquaintances to save their trash and their recyclables for a week and then to lie down and be photographed with all of it. Some of the subjects volunteered to be photographed because they thought the project was worthwhile. Others, I paid.
The series of portraits is inclusive, representing a range of socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities. I photographed myself and my family, too, because I’m not pointing my finger at others; I’m part of the problem, too, and I want my 10-year-old son to be aware of this. I had people include their recyclables for several reasons: much of what is designated recyclable is not recycled (large areas of our oceans, like the Pacific Garbage Patch, are filled with plastic); recycling plastic doesn’t make sense, economically or environmentally, as a great deal of energy is required to repurpose plastic (New York City did away with recycling plastic because these costs far outweighed the benefits); finally, I want to underscore just how much unnecessary packaging we all use, particularly in the U.S. I’ve created three environments for the pictures, all in my own yard: water, forest and beach.
For the water setting, I built an 8’ square frame, lined it with black plastic, and filled it with water (about 14” deep). I made a bed of moss, duff, twigs, sticks, leaves, and pine cones for the forest floor. For the beach, I brought in sand (about 1,000 pounds) for the subjects to lie on. I plan to continue the series, creating other environments (or shooting on location if necessary): snow, rocks, wildflowers, etc.
The point is to highlight how pervasive garbage is; no corner of the earth is untouched.
The photos in this series may not change anyone’s habits, but by holding up a mirror and asking us to look at ourselves, I’ve found that some are considering the issue more deeply. Several of the subjects I photographed have said the process of saving their garbage – and then laying in it – reconciled them to how much waste they make.
Others have commented how small and powerless they feel in the face of the problem. What can any one of us do? It isn’t our fault that the products we buy come with excessive packaging. It isn’t our fault either that the products available to us are designed to have a short life span. General Electric could make a refrigerator that keeps our beer cold for 400 years, but if they did, they wouldn’t make a profit and as a company, they wouldn’t grow.
This economic model and its necessity for continual growth is what is fueling much of the waste epidemic – and makes conservation seem impossible.
Still, some of us are finding that there are small steps we can take to mitigate the crisis (compost if you have a yard, bring your own re-usable water bottle when you travel, buy produce without the packaging). Reflecting on the pictures I’ve made so far (below), I see 7 Days of Garbage as instant archeology, a record not only of our waste but of our values – values that just may be evolving a little.