I visited Bern, Switzerland, a few years ago and was struck by the cleanliness of the city’s streets and walkways. They were orderly and sanitary. It made me a bit nervous, really. Where were the items that had been left behind? The kombucha bottles, banana peels, and fancy sneakers, the outdated TVs and sagging mattresses, the chicken bones and candy wrappers? Where was the stuff that gets banged down the alleys, in fabulous disarray, transforming into a parade of color and texture – into a waste stream of possibility?
I’m an urban creature, and as such, my relationship with city trash is vital to me. I find rubbish beautiful, disturbing, and worth getting close to. Over the years, I’ve taken hundreds of photos of it, mostly in the Mission where I live and roam. I never stage anything. I prefer to move in closer instead, twisting and arching my body until I find just the right angle. I imagine the story of how the trash got to be there. Where it came from. Who left it. Where it will go next. I feel a sense of ease when the trash is biodegradable, knowing it will decay back into the earth, and am troubled when it’s not. I recently started highlighting my photos of what gets left behind on my blog, www.popuppoems.com .
When people ask, “Why shoot garbage?” I answer that for me, it makes sense to document and appreciate rubbish. After all, at one point someone probably really wanted the object, whatever it was. They desired it, paid for it, used it, ate it, wore it, slept on it, maybe even felt an attachment to it – so why not pay attention to what happens once they’ve let it go?
Below is a collection of photos I took on Mission streets over the past few months. The area's walkability and the active street life, combined with its restaurants, bodegas, and thrift and dollar stores, add excellent fodder to the waste stream and make for vivid, dynamic subjects.
Nearly every time I walk around my neighborhood, I stumble upon abandoned shoes. Seriously. Why? Who removes their footwear to wander barefoot down the street? Are the shoe leavers forced to abandon their heels and sneakers, or was it by choice? It’s a mystery.
Rotting peels are sexy. Think I’m crazy? Fair enough. But just for kicks, take a closer look the next time you see street produce. Notice the delicate texture, the soft fleshy fruit peeking out through tender skin. Observe the moist juices, slightly sticky, forming small drops that cling to the meat. Really look. And let me know what you think.
As tempting as it is, I never eat the food I photograph. It was very hard with the chicken and gizzards to just walk away and leave them there, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
I could have decorated my apartment five times over with what I've found on the streets so far – most of which looks like it came straight from the prop rooms of 1970s detective shows. Chairs, couches, and colossal TVs are very popular items, but the glorious mattress is the most widespread. I’ve shot filthy futons, stained Sealy Posturepedics, and coiled monsters ripped to shreds. They’re left standing against trees and buildings or tucked into entryways with makeshift bedding for our street friends who seek comfort at night.
Shooting trash is fun and easy. Simply step outside and behold the possibilities. Take photos as you walk to BART or the corner store. Remember: The closer you get to the trash, the more dramatic your photos will look. Pay attention to the types of garbage you see and you'll learn a lot about the neighborhood you're shooting.