Recycled Beauty: raising the bar of photography for the environmental industry

Long dependent on stock photography, the recycling industry could learn a thing or two from the sleek world of marketing and advertising. American photographer Ellen Callaway speaks to Libby Peake about her photo campaign ‘Recycled Beauty’, aiming to raise the bar of photography for the environmental industry

The world of recycling is necessarily a grimy one, full of discarded materials quite often covered in dirt, dust, crumbs or sticky residues. Perhaps, as a result, it isn’t always terribly photogenic, and photographs of the industry don’t do justice to all the benefits it brings.

American photographer Ellen Callaway has set out to change all that with her series, ‘Recycled Beauty’, which she says “is visually connecting the dots of the circular economy on a consumer level”. Callaway is a food and product photographer by trade, but tells me she has always been concerned about environmental issues, and, specifically, her own personal impact. So, when she got her own studio in Arlington, north of Boston, she joined her local recycling committee, which organises collections for materials that don’t go in the area’s single-stream recycling collections, including polystyrene, e-waste, scrap metal, ink cartridges, batteries, secondhand reusable goods and so on.

“After about a year of volunteering with my local recycling committee,” she explains, “I realised that the industry was relying on stock photography or on-camera flash from people doing it themselves. At the same time, I was also learning more and more interesting things about the industry, about how to divert my own waste – knowledge which, as a member of the community, wasn’t very easy for me to access, let alone in a very interesting way.” What followed was a period of six months or so during which Callaway had an internal dialogue considering whether she could “connect [her] love of photography, [her] career in photography, with [her] concern for the environment”, before she launched the ‘Recycled Beauty’ campaign, which she says she has found “extremely satisfying and gratifying and educational”.

Asked how the series relates to her food and product photography, Callaway says there is a definite overlap: “Every visual cue is considered, whether it’s the angle, what’s included or not included, the lighting definitely... I want to show as much as I can in that one photo as possible within the limitations of the industry.” Speaking about the images depicting ‘battery city’, produced for a Canadian battery recycler, Raw Materials Company (RMC), Callaway explains that for the ‘after’ image, showing the three products resulting from the recycling process, “I was food styling there, basically, and building up the material... showing as many different physical traits as I can – it’s very textural.” Likewise, the content of each image is carefully considered; the ‘before’ battery image, for instance, intentionally does not focus on the most well- known brands of alkaline battery, but rather includes a wide variety with the aim of showing RMC’s process doesn’t discriminate based on brand, size, shape, or condition.

Indeed, each photo starts with a degree of research to establish the most up-to-date information about what consumers should do with their waste (such as freezing fruit peels to deter fruit flies) or what the local area can accept in terms of the particular material being photographed. So, for an image of polystyrene, for instance, the vendor told her that broken polystyrene, while perfectly recyclable in the area, along with whole pieces of various forms of polystyrene, is not frequently supplied, so Callaway ensured that the photograph prominently featured a broken bit of the material: “I used another piece of Styrofoam [polystyrene] to frame a piece of broken Styrofoam with a harsh shadow to make it look cloud-like and feature the broken edge, to say ‘This is okay.’”

For the paper cup photograph, meanwhile, Callaway set out to show that the material isn’t easily recyclable (something that’s recently been brought to the UK’s attention through the efforts of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall): “The material’s name, ‘paper cup’, alludes to [it] just being paper. It feels like it is just paper. It does hold liquid, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was lined with plastic until my research for Recycled Beauty started”, Callaway explains. “I set out to strip down the paper cup to just the essential material of the plastic liner. Paper cups are difficult to recycle because the plastic is fused to the paper ([in] many areas of the States, they aren’t recyclable at all). The campaign has set out to not just talk about the liner, but rather to show it. Make the message graphic, revealing and relatable about any material at hand.”

This article was taken from Issue 85

The aim, Callaway summarises is to “make it as eye catching as you would looking through the magazine and seeing a bottle of L’Oreal. On the one hand, it’s just a bottle – it’s not a beautiful bouquet of flowers or something like that, it’s just a little bottle, but it’s photographed to make it look magical. So, I believe turning waste diversion into its own advertising campaign is a way to actually make a difference in a positive way... in general, I’m trying to take the positive side of this and say, ‘Okay, how can we make this fun and take the task and the burden out of waste diversion and make it something you want people to do?’ It’s basically advertising – you’re making them want to buy something.”

And the feedback she’s received indicates it’s been working, with people telling Callaway the series has “raised their enthusiasm for recycling”. The series is currently being licensed by a group of municipalities in western Connecticut, the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority, with the group’s website exclusively featuring Callaway’s images to assist in its messaging about waste diversion.

Looking to the future (and farther afield), Callaway says she hopes to further commercialise Recycled Beauty, developing it into a combined advertising agency and conceptual photo studio. She notes that the images could easily work outside her corner of the US: “From my research, Europe and Canada’s recycling practices are technically advanced. Their cultures are also very accepting of performing proper recycling... I think [Recycled Beauty could easily be] incorporated into messaging in a society such as Europe or Canada that sees the value there is in recycling” and where people are starting to relate to the ideas of the circular economy. Even here, though, we could all use a reminder now and again about how beautiful our work is – despite the occasional dirt and grime...

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