Photography: One week's waste

For his ‘7 days of garbage’ series, American photographer Gregg Segal asked subjects to collect their waste for a week before lying down to be photographed with it. On the following pages, he shares some powerful results and tells us about the project.

What prompted you to start this series?

Being aware of the vast quantities of waste we all produce – and wanting to make this point succinctly in a picture. As a family, we’d taken steps to mitigate some of the waste by composting... We’re down to about one small bag of garbage (about the size of a large head of lettuce) per week. Everything else is either composted or recycled.

A few years ago, I photographed a ‘zero waste’ family in Northern California for People magazine. Though I didn’t initiate my project because of this experience, I was very impressed by Bea Johnson and her family, and how they’ve reduced their waste (they produce only about one mason jar full of garbage in the course of a year).

Can you tell us about the process of creating the different environments and shooting the images?

I created the four environments in my own yard in Altadena, California. The idea was to suggest the pervasiveness of garbage – no environment is safe. The natural environments (beach, forest, snow, pond) are intended to contrast the garbage, i.e. we’re sullying our environment. For the pond, I built a 10 x 10 retainer for water which the subject floats in. For the forest setting, I gathered leaves, twigs, moss, logs, rocks, et cetera. I brought two tons of sand in for the beach and had snow made from blocks of ice for the wintery setting (here in Southern California!).

How did you find subjects to take part? And have any of them changed their habits because of it?

Many of the subjects were friends, family, neighbours and other acquaintances in my community. I networked outward from these subjects. Some have said they think more carefully about what they’re buying and consuming, looking to reduce the amount of waste they generate.

Has your family? [Segal is pictured with his wife and son]

Yes, my family has done little things to reduce waste like bring our own bags when we go shopping, avoid buying products with excessive packaging, skip getting plastic bags for our produce, et cetera.

We notice that there doesn’t seem to be much (or any) food waste in a number of the pictures. Did some subjects leave that out?

Yes, some of the people edited their garbage, unfortunately. I did stipulate that if anyone composted, they needn’t bring any food waste they composted as it wasn’t really garbage (since it was going right back into the ground, adding nutrient to the soil). 

What do you think the images reveal about the subjects’ values?

It’s difficult to separate the values of the individual from those of the culture. We value speed, convenience and immediate gratification – which is why we go through so much stuff, so quickly.

Using a disposable plastic cup for a drink of water, for example, then tossing it; that cup is used for five seconds but may be around – in a landfill or the ocean – for decades or longer. The cup may be recycled, but the resources and energy used to recycle it make this a costly option.

This article was taken from Issue 82

The disconnect between the short-term use of a product and its lasting negative impact (as waste) is staggering. Most people I know are bothered by this disconnect on some level, but all of us use the excuse that the problem is bigger than us and that we’re powerless to impact change... and besides, we’re thirsty right now and everyone else around us is getting a drink and tossing their cup, too. 

How do you think this project would differ if it were conducted in other countries besides the US?

Well, in many third-world countries we would undoubtedly find less packaging and maybe less branding. In poorer countries, I would expect to find less food waste as well.

What sort of wider reaction have these images caused?

Shock, despair, recognition. People see themselves in the portraits and recognise that they, too, produce a hell of a lot of garbage. Several people and institutions in far-reaching places have wanted to replicate the project, photographing consumers in their own communities.

How is this project developing?

I’m continuing the project later in Toronto. I have a sponsor there who is helping to produce the shoot. Our settings this time will be wildflowers and Canadian maple leaves.

We have Toronto’s head of transportation on board (to be photographed with his garbage) and may even have Toronto’s mayor participate as well. 

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