this photographer spent a year shooting america's trash heaps
We caught up with James Senzer, the young photographer who found a lot more than takeout trash at his local waste management facility.
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A wallet containing eight credit cards and five driver's licenses. Piles of gruesome worker compensation documents. A scorched Kia Sorento. It sort of sounds like the stuff of a Sopranos opening sequence, but it's actually just what photographer James Senzer found at his local dumps over the course of his final year at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
A village of about 7,000 residents situated along the Hudson River, New Paltz isn't home to the mountains of tires found in Edward Burtynsky's stomach-turning photographs of industrial landscapes. But as James found, the region's waste management facilities are teeming with something: confidential personal information. IDs, credit cards, social security numbers, vehicle registration documents were "literally blowing in the wind," the 21-year-old photographer said.
From 2013 - 14 -- a year in which nearly 13 million Americans were victims of identity theft -- James shot large format film photographs of these facilities and created scans of found materials, compiling the series American Waste: Landscape and Identity. We caught up with him to find out how disposability is impacting American life.
Why did you start shooting trash?
My parents owned some property on Shelter Island, which is a small town spanning only 27 square miles. Shelter Island has no garbage collection, so we had to bring all of our trash to a local recycling center. Without seeming like I'm romanticizing garbage, I found it to have a certain visceral appeal — the textures and objects were alive and extremely varied. While depositing our garbage, we discovered a small area with signage indicating it was the "goodie pile." This section contained objects which still had some life in them, but were generally in pretty rough shape. In one summer I accumulated many interesting finds ranging from cameras and old photo albums to mid century furniture and a 1920s Singer sewing machine. In a nutshell, I was shocked to see some of the items people considered garbage, and began documenting them with my camera.
What sites did you shoot? How did you find them?
Aside from the location in Shelter Island, where I have shot numerous images, the rest of the images were shot in upstate New York, principally Ulster County. I found many of the sites through online research and word of mouth from peers and friends. Before shooting any photographs with my 4x5, I would visit the location just to walk around and see what was available to photograph. I had to coordinate with the managers of these facilities, portfolio in hand, to gain access and often had to sign releases relieving them of liability in the case that I was injured while working. Many times, I was turned away.
What are some of the most common objects or documents you've found? The strangest?
I found hundreds of photographs, ranging from c prints of family functions from the 80s to fragments of tintypes and full wedding albums. Surprisingly, credit cards and driver's licenses were very common. One of my best finds was an Eastman Kodak darkroom thermometer sealed in the packaging. I used the thermometer to develop all of the film I shot for the project. Additionally I discovered about 250 workers compensation forms from the 1970s describing medical ailments of construction workers in gruesome detail. Every single form contained a full name, address, and social security number. During one of my last shoots for the project, I came across an entire wallet. For me, this was better than gold. The wallet contained one woman's lifetime of identification documents including her social security card, eight credit cards, vehicle registration, and five driver's licenses.
The series is about so much more than trash. What are American Waste's broader ambitions?
The series is both an exploration and critique of the waste industry. The images serve as documentation of recycling centers, transfer stations, landfills, and refuse collection sites. Initially the work was created just as a document of waste sites. Eventually the work became far more socio political, aiming to provide commentary on the disposable nature of American society, a common disregard for individual identity, and the commonality of identity fraud within the United States. The series intends to showcase the burden that waste is posing on the landscape, whether that burden is visible to the human eye, or not. After finding an abundance of personal photographs, credit cards, driver's licenses, social security cards, and other confidential information literally blowing in the wind at waste sites, I came to the realization that many people in this country have little respect for the identities of both their loved ones and the deceased.
Text Emily Manning
Photography James Senzer