What led me to take this photo was something I had seen six months earlier: someone with a pole slung across their shoulder, balancing two huge garbage bags stuffed with who knows what. It reminded me of magazine photos of street vendors in Southeast Asia carrying produce to sell. But this was Minnesota, in the dead of winter.
I almost always introduce myself to explain what I do before taking someone’s photo. But this seemingly incongruous scene was too compelling. After getting off two quick frames I walked up to say hello, but the pole-carrying person ignored me and kept walking.
The following summer I was photographing a young girl at an apartment complex where most of the residents were Cambodian. As it happened, the pole-carrying person was her grandmother who lived there as well. She was a scrap collector. Her English was limited, although better than my mom’s who could only manage a few words despite living in Minnesota for the last 30 years of her life. I asked if I could photograph her while she scrapped and she said yes.
On a hot afternoon I followed her as she rummaged through garbage cans and dove dumpsters in south Minneapolis, methodically extracting beer and pop cans and metal bits. After several hours of this she sat in the shadows near the golden arches of McDonalds and pulled out a small plastic baggy containing some green leaves. Tea, I thought. Then she proceeded to chew on them.
Her daughter said that her mother never gets sick, even though she eats very little. I asked her why she scraps.
She said she does it for the money, but then added that it gave her a weekly purpose. On a good day she found enough to fill up the bags on her repurposed baby stroller and make $16 at a recycling center. But it was hard work and her legs were bruised from the rocks kids threw at her. When I showed her the photos she shook her head, kind of laughed, and said, “Too thin. I used to be much prettier.”
Scrapper At Home
Most students see the golden arches before anything else and that it’s a homeless man about to be run over. Other reactions: “They’re recycling.” He’s been hired by the city to clean the streets.” “He’s moving.” “He’s picking up all the trash McDonald’s makes.” I remember one student who lived near this intersection who thought the photo represented “home.”
After hearing their answers I ask, “How many McDonald’s commercials do you think you’ve seen in your lifetime?” “Too many” is often the response. (American children see over a thousand fast food commercials every year; hundreds more from McDonald’s than any other brand.)
Then I ask, “How do you think all of those commercial have affected you? What do they call it when thoughts get into your brain, affect your behavior, and you don’t even realize it?” Some typical responses: “Bad influences.” “Subliminal messaging.” One yelled, “Corporate brainwashing!” Good answer. It’s also called advertising. One student was so dismayed he wanted to know if this was illegal. Then I read the backstory.
We take photos in our minds everyday of the people around us. How much of what we see is a reflection of our assumptions? Is a photograph a window into the world or a mirror of the viewer? Can we really imagine the lives of the people we see on the streets or in the hallways of our schools? Imagination is important, but it is essential to get to know the world around us and have that experience feed our imaginations.
- Commercialism: http://www.businessinsider.com/american-children-see-253-mcdonalds-ads-every-year-2013-11
- Environmentalism: http://earth911.com/eco-tech/basics-recycling-scrap-metal-money/
- Immigration: http://hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-72-issue-3/herbooknote/why-don%E2%80%99t-they-learn-english-_54
- Difficulties of learning English: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14330106