Gregg Segal and his family amongst their garbage.
7 Days of Garbage
Heidi: What is your message with this series?
Gregg: The seed for 7 Days of Garbage is that I wanted to call attention to a problem (consumption, waste, excess, packaging) that most of us, including me, are/were oblivious to.
Even though there’s awareness about the problem, there’s a laziness to do anything about it. You could say we’re all victims of comfort and convenience.
Where did your inspiration come from?
I figured if you’re laying in the garbage and packaging you generate in a week, you can’t ignore it. The pictures are meant to be a wake up call and to provoke action – or at least consciousness. In a way, the subject is both victim and perpetrator, which makes some audiences uncomfortable. We tend to expect issues to be black and white/good guys and bad guys, but in reality problems are more complex. Several years ago, People magazine assigned me to photograph Bea Johnson, who, with her family, produces virtually zero waste. One year’s worth of their garbage fit into a mason jar. Bea inspired me and was one of the seeds that led to my project.
Did you foresee Daily Bread as part of the 7 Days or Garbage? or was this more of an organic evolution?
Daily Bread sprang from 7 Days of Garbage; in the process of photographing people’s garbage, I began to look more deeply at food – what we’re eating and throwing away. Again, I’m calling attention to a cultural blindspot.
We know that eating processed foods loaded with salt, fat and sugar has serious consequences to our health – and that there’s truth in the old maxim, “you are what you eat” yet many of us have poor diets. We tend to put our faith in medicines that will make us better when we’re sick rather than going to the source of the problem. I chose to focus on kids because eating habits that form when we’re young last a lifetime. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Still, there are kids eating well both here and abroad and often indigenous cultures have healthier diets than we do here at home (simple whole foods & balanced meals prepared at home). My aim is to photograph children in other parts of the world surrounded by the foods they eat in a week – and I think the results will be inspiring and actionable; I plan to share recipes and menus with viewers, which will accompany the portraits in a book that is part social commentary, part public health initiative and part international cookbook.
Is your travel funded by kickstarter alone?
The budget I created will allow me to shoot in two regions and cover the costs of travel, crew, and equipment – and all the food I’ll be photographing. The goal is to produce the first leg of the project thru kickstarter and have enough material to present to potential publishers.
How will you pick the children you are going to photograph; how will you find them?
I’m collaborating with Dr. Maya Adam, a Stanford professor whose on-line course, Child Nutrition and Cooking has drawn a quarter million students from around the world. We’ve reached out to her students (in 80 countries) inviting them to participate and have gotten a lot of interest! So, the next step is to cull and figure out which two regions to begin with.
What did this project teach you about yourself as a photographer? how about as a father/family man?
Shooting these projects has shown me that it’s possible to achieve social change through art without being pedantic! I think it’s key for the work to have a service component, which is why, with Daily Bread for instance, I plan to highlight diets that are balanced and healthy. I’m planning to photograph in parts of the world where you find longevity and unusually low rates of diabetes, heart disease, and many kinds of cancer. With 7 Days of Garbage, I wanted it to be clear that we’re all in this together – and all of us are culpable on some level. I felt it was important for my son (7 at the time) to see that we’re part of the problem, so we lay down in our garbage, too. A few weeks later, Hank said, “soon the world will be covered with plastic bottles. They’ll have to make giant towers to keep all the plastic bottles in. Probably a tower to the moon. 1,000 years ago, there were no plastic bottles. There wasn’t even one plastic thing on Earth. Too bad, there sure are now!” My son’s comments showed me how he (and children in general) process their experiences; though at first they may not seem to get it, the seed is planted and germinating and when you don’t expect it, a light bulb is illuminated – which is why it is key to model well!
What are 3 simple things we can do to change our habits?
As a consumer (waste)
1) Compost – rather than toss food waste in the garbage, you can compost and add nutrient to your soil.
2) Buy products with as little packaging as possible. Even small changes make a difference. Instead of buying the package of pomegranate seeds, for instance, just buy the whole fruit. More work, but less to recycle. Recycling comes with an energy cost that you can help reduce.
3) Re-use whenever possible (try not to do use something once and then toss it – like a plastic cup for a drink of water). Better to bring your own water bottle with you.
As a consumer (food)
1) Eat something green every day (ideally you want a variety of colors on your plate).
2) Don’t eat anything that has a commercial – this may sound extreme, but if you think about it, foods that are nutritious aren’t made by a corporation. It’s the processed and packaged foods, loaded with additives – and salt, fat and sugar – that you want to avoid.
3) Prepare one meal a week with your kids. Find a recipe for a dish they like and prepare it together. Hopefully, they’ll take an interest, begin to develop their palate and next thing you know, you may have a burgeoning chef!
Have you made any of these changes to your shoots that call for catering? Those are notoriously wasteful.
Yes, they are – especially those cases of bottled water. The last couple shoots I’ve done with larger crews I’ve brought gallon jugs of water and asked crew to bring their re-usable containers – still have plastic bottles – but less of them.
I often end up being the producer on my shoots and if I cater, I ask for paper plates (biodegradable) rather than the dreaded plastic – or worse, styrofoam, which takes like a million years to decompose!
When you were shooting the garbage, did they clean out the containers?
Yes, some people washed their garbage before showing up to be photographed.
One guy even washed his eggshells! Some cut corners and didn’t show up with the really stinky stuff.
Others included everything. I had an assistant who very nearly passed out when catching a whiff of liquid leftovers that appeared at first glance t0 be milkshake but which smelled like rotting chicken! One family called to cancel mid week; they had been saving their Chinese leftovers and the husband couldn’t stand the smell any longer. I suggested they just put their trash in the garbage and bring on shoot day, but they had already lost their initial enthusiasm for the shoot.
What were some of the most striking comments from the subjects?
In general, most were taken back by how much packaging was in their weekly trash. Some (subjects and viewers) were curious why I asked them to include recyclables since they weren’t being thrown away. I explained that I was
1) calling attention to how much excess packaging we unwittingly
2) recycling has a cost; trucking it to a plant, melting it down, reconfiguring it, trucking it somewhere else in its new incarnation
3) Many of the things we think of as recyclable, really aren’t. For instance, most people assume pizza boxes are recyclable and, in and of themselves, they are, but when they’re soiled with grease and cheese, the paper is contaminated and can’t be effectively recycled (paper fibers won’t separate from oils during the pulping process).