Why in the world would you choose to do a photography project at a trash dump? Here’s the story by co-founder Karin Doolin
On a humanitarian photography trip to Nicaragua in 2013, one of the places we were scheduled to visit was a trash dump. There was no feeding station at the time, and it was a volatile place. Our group of fellow photographers were unable to enter the actual trash dump area due to safety issues, but we got word the following day that the males in our group would be allowed in to the actual dump site to photograph and would have 2 armed guards accompanying them. Of corse the females of the group were disappointed, but it was for our own safety so we understood. My husband (and co-founder) Roger however was getting to go, so it was much easier for me to let the disappointment dwindle.
When Roger returned from his experience, I could see his excitement. (As photographers, we tend to get very excited over something interesting and compelling to photograph) He shared his images with me and I was absolutely awe struck. I’d never seen anything like it. He showed me how the people would chase the trash trucks – some barefoot, some in sandals – and would climb up on the trucks and flip over the top to ride into the dumping site. Upon arriving, they would ride with the trash as the truck was emptied in order to stake their claim and be the first to the loot.
As if you were looking at a modern day gold rush, these people worked to get their spot and find something of value in the trash. Recyclables, something for their children, and mostly… food. Now, trash is vile no matter what, but I want you to imagine trash in a third world country – a country that clearly keeps anything of worth – that doesn’t waste like we do in our country. What could be in this waste that could possibly be consumed? I shudder thinking of what that could be.
During the drive into the dump, Roger had a bottle thrown at him that hit his mouth. He wasn’t injured, but he learned pretty quickly that he wasn’t welcome. There is nothing pleasant about life in a trash dump. People here have one thing on their minds – survival. The group of photographers were seen as a threat when they arrived – as competition. And when you’ve worked your way up the ladder in the dump – you don’t take likely to someone on your territory. Most were born there, most will die there. It’s all they’ll ever know. Day in and day out, they are simply surviving.
However, once the residents were able to understand that the group of photographers were not there to infringe on their territory, but to help tell their story and hopefully get them help, their moods changed. People softened, they interacted, they proudly showed off their finds.
When it was time to leave, someone snapped a photo of the group of photographers along with some of the residents, and THIS is the image that strikes me the most. It shows that even these hardened individuals who have seen so much pain and hardships that you and I will never know - still have hope. Still have the ability to see goodness and maybe for once in their lives feel a little special.
This image. It’s more meaningful than you could know. I see Roger standing there with the trash pick the man next to him handed him for the photo – right before he put his arm around him. (photo left) I see kids smiling, I see families, friends, camaraderie. In an area like this, hope is a luxury they aren’t given – yet somehow it’s there.
It was after this trip that we created The Big Picture Project. While in Nicaragua on our first project, we had an opportunity to return to the dump. We saw the work that Tammy – a missionary that moved her family to Nicaragua in order to change lives – was doing within the dump, and she explained to us how she was trying to buy a small piece of property to build a community building where they would establish a feeding station for the people of the dump so they wouldn’t need to salvage food from the garbage. When she said the words “Would you ever consider doing a project in the dump?” I lit up. This is exactly what The Big Picture Project is all about. Giving a voice to the voiceless, helping someone who the world has turned it’s back on, changing the lives of those who are forgotten by our world. Most people don’t know these people even exist. We as a society don’t want to look at their existence. Because it’s hard, and it isn’t pretty, and in our world we tend to scroll pass the things that actually have impact so we can numb ourselves into a mindless, happier place. It’s easier that way isn’t it? To feel completely detached to the other part of the world that don’t have the same luxuries that we do. To see those whose lives are means of merely survival as different. But the purpose of The Big Picture Project is to show that we are not different. We were merely fortunate enough to be born in a different latitude and longitude, but we are all human. And we all deserve hope.