“Trash is a snapshot of our life”

Photographer Gregg Segal portrayed friends and strangers lying in seven days of their own garbage. Between polished eggshells and used syringes he found a lot of shame, pride and contradiction.

Gregg Segal is an American photographer based in California. See more of his work on his website.

Gregg Segal is an American photographer based in California. See more of his work on his website.

With this project, you portray something that most people don’t think about too much: trash. It is an undesired byproduct of something we want and yet it tells us a lot about how we live, consume and who we are. Was that the idea?
Yes, trash is in a way instant archaeology, giving us a glimpse at our value-system. It is a snapshot of our way of life. Trash defines us. Where you shop and what you eat reveal your socio-economic standing. Hopefully in 100 or 200 years, people will look back and think “can you believe how much trash that society produced?”.

Looking at the pictures, the characterization of the subjects is done by showing the garbage they produced over seven days. How important was it to you, that the people lay down in their trash?
As you said, we usually disassociate us from the trash we produce and my idea was to go against that and make a graphic connection between the trash and the people responsible for producing it. The message is pretty straightforward: You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.

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Despite all the filthiness depicted in the pictures, the subjects are usually portrayed quite glamorously and not derogatorily.
Yes, despite the heavy subject, the pictures are meant to be looked at and enjoyed. Just because the context is such a serious or yukky one, doesn’t mean the pictures should be ugly. Contradictions and opposites make for compelling pictures.

In most pictures, the person really fits and matches the items of trash spread around it. Were there instances where you were surprised by a person’s trash?
The problem is that some people probably edited their garbage to portray themselves in a certain light. That was disappointing but also interesting because it really showed to me how trash can shape the impression we want people to have of us. There was one guy who even cleaned his garbage. He came and brought eggshells that he had cleaned for the occasion. He didn’t want to appear messy or slackerish. Another person was the exact opposite and we found used syringes and tampons in her garbage. Another person brought a milkshake but it smelled like rotten chicken. It was interesting to see how people dealt with the disgust-factor of their trash: does it bother them to show the nasty reality or do they want to polish it?

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Is there a picture that resonates better with the audience than the rest?
That is a very subjective choice because everybody identifies with something else, but I found that the pictures showing middle- or especially upper-class citizens and families in their trash to really capture people’s attention. It’s one thing to see a poor person lying in trash but to see a rich family in that surrounding – you can’t help but look and ponder the contradiction of the image. The more money you have, the easier it is to distance yourself from the ugliness of the world.

Yes, but trash is something that all humans share. Some might be able to keep it out of their life, others live in it or of it, but we all produce it. It is one of life’s common denominators.
Very true. I would be interested to see the results if I would replicate this project in some other countries or in some other time even. 200 years ago, people just did not produce a lot of trash. There was no packaging, nothing like that. We all produce trash but it differs greatly. Also the awareness to the problem. The project received much more attention in Europe than over here in the US because I think that in Europe, there is a feeling of “we produce this together, we deal with it together”. Here, people think that they can do however they see fit.

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You and your family are also portrayed in the series. What made you also include yourself?
I don’t just want to point my finger at others and pretend like I don’t produce any trash. I also contribute to the problem. The real problem is awareness. It is easy to forget about your impact on the planet’s well-being. Consider how many people go and grab a plastic cup and drink from a water dispenser. They use that cup for maybe five seconds but it will harm the environment for many years to come. There is a complete imbalance between the usefulness of some items to us and the damage they do to the planet.

Were you interested in that topic before you embarked on this project?
Very much so, that lead me to the project in the first place. Even as a kid, I was amazed by the fact that people just put all their garbage in a bag and then a truck would come and make it disappear. I never understood where it went. It still amazes me today. Of course I know by now, but there is so much about garbage removal and disposal that many people are simply very ignorant about. It is a common misperception that recycling can fully solve the problem. The energy needed to recycle a bottle of plastic is so high that it again damages the planet in some other way. There is no easy fix.

Do you think that is easier to educate or raise awareness with a project like this than with a shocking and polemic campaign that would show dead animals or starving children on a landfill?
This project is definitely subtler and it doesn’t immediately hold you responsible for the planet’s problems. It’s easier to discuss with people if you don’t point the finger at them. But I do of course hope that people identify with the project and thereby the problem.

Filed under Trash
Max Tholl
Author

Max likes reading, writing, music gigs, cats, and pickled beets – though not necessarily in that order. He hails from Luxembourg, is terrible at board games, a mediocre cook, but can hum the Turtles theme song in four different languages. Max was an editor for The European where he met Lars. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram.