When Gregg Segal was 10-years-old his mother gave him his first camera. That same year, his neighbors across the street amassed "a fortress of garbage." He photographed it.
Decades later, Segal is still interested in the same images and is the photographer behind a series entitled "7 Days of Garbage," which poses American families surrounded by a week's worth of their own trash. What results are images that are equal parts visually striking and environmentally disturbing.
The average person in the United States produces four pounds of garbage per person per day. Collectively, we produce millions of tons of trash each week, adding up to over 220 million tons each year. And that number is growing. Seeing that reality in focus through Segal's work puts our country's trash crisis into sharp relief.
The aerial photos are shot with a clinical detachment, capturing subjects from all different walks of life, cocooned in their own waste. The photos, shot against natural backdrops of sand, water and grass, are purposely startling in that juxtaposition.
In an interview with Mic, Segal spoke at length about the emotions behind this series, the United States' massive garbage problem, and what we all can do to help.
Mic: What was your intention with these photos? And who do you want to see them?
"Dana." Gregg Segal.
Gregg Segal: Hopefully people are motivated to think about their role in the problem. I think we all play a part. We feel frustrated because we're just cogs in a machine and there's very little we can do about how much packaging is produced and how much we bring home with us when we go shopping. We don't necessarily want all of that stuff. It would take a pretty proactive person to make a change in their lives. When you go to Trader Joe's, are you going to rip the stuff out of the packaging while you're there? There are little things you can do, but I think we feel overwhelmed by the problem. I think [the series] will certainly trigger some reflection but I don't know how much it will change our behaviors.
How did you choose who you photographed?
"Elias, Jessica, Azai, & Ri-Karlo." Gregg Segal.
GS: Most of them are acquaintances of one kind or another: a yoga teacher, a neighbor, someone who takes care of a neighbor, parents of kids who go to school with my son. It was six degrees of separation.
"Mariko." Gregg Segal.
What is the main source of all this trash? Is it food waste? Something else?
"John." Gregg Segal.
GS: There's some food waste, but we can compost it. It's the packaging that's the problem. A lot of it is designated recyclable, but it's often not recycled. As evidenced by the gyre, a slowly rotating churning mass of garbage beneath the surface of the water in the Pacific. If you see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from above, you might not see it all, but it's double the size of Texas. A lot of the stuff we throw into the recycling bin isn't recycled. It's also not cost effective to recycle plastic because of the amount of energy used to break it down and re-form it. Plastic is a huge problem, as well as Styrofoam, which was recently banned but still will probably be around for many years.
You're also a writer. What is it about photography in particular that helps you tell this story about waste? Could the message you set out to send be conveyed in another medium?
"James." Gregg Segal.
GS: We're much more visually literate than ever before. Kids in particular. Pictures resonate more deeply than text. We don't take the time to read. We're a snatch-grab society with short attention spans ... Pictures have greater impact.
What was outside of each photo's frame? What are we not seeing?
"Siggins." Gregg Segal.
GS: I created all of these environments in my yard. The whole thing is the contrast of these pristine, natural settings that we've impacted. Our footprint extends everywhere.
For people living in city apartments, backyard composting isn't easy. What do you think they can do to help reduce waste?
"Michael, Jason, Annie, & Olivia." Gregg Segal.
GS: One thing we can do is not have so many kids. That's always a topic that's off the table. It's considered untouchable because it infringes on our personal freedoms. But the line is where personal freedoms aren't part of the public good. There are 7 billion people on the planet. That's probably too many people for the resources we have. You can't be China and tell people how many children to have, but we take for granted things like water. Bring a water reusable water bottle with you. When we shop, we don't buy the vegetables that look bad, but we should. I once did a story on people who produce zero waste for TIME Magazine. They would produce only one mason jar full of garbage in one year. Their whole lives were centered around making zero waste.
Is that feasible?
"Susan." Gregg Segal.
GS: My wife tried it at Whole Foods. She tried bringing in a jar to get the fresh peanut butter. They wouldn't let her. We're such a litigious society. People would sue if they got sick. That mentality can inform the things we buy. I'll have to contact the family to figure out how they did that.
Are there any other photographers on the subject that you admire?
GS: There are a bunch. There's a guy named Vik Muniz who did incredible work on garbage dumps in Brazil. He worked with kids and the people living in the dumps to create art out of garbage.
What's the next step for the "7 Days of Garbage" series?
"Tammy, Trevor." Gregg Segal.
GS: I want to photograph with wildflowers in California but that's not until early spring. I want to do rocks and snow, too, but I'm open to suggestions. I like the idea of photographing someone under the ice. I'm looking to get a grant to continue. Several overseas publications have picked this up — Germany, Italy, Poland, China, France, the Netherlands — but few American magazines have been interested in publishing this. We [in the United States] produce twice as much garbage as Europeans. I think there must be a correlation in the lack of interest in American magazines and how much we produce. I think European magazines tend to take more chances. We're a little safer here. I also think Europeans love to look at America and say, "Look at their crazy gun culture. Look at the Americans and all their garbage."
When I think of police procedurals, there'’s always a creepy person looking through someone else’s garbage and it's perceived as an invasion of privacy. Do you find garbage intimate? What does that mean to your photos and message?
"Gregg, Hank, Dani." Gregg Segal.
GS: The idea is that photography is a mirror. I'm holding up the mirror and asking us to look at ourselves. I was in those photos, so I'm including myself in the problem. It's mildly humiliating to lay in your garbage, but I think we need to be humiliated. I think we need to wake up. We're sleepwalking in a way. We're not really conscious of what we're doing. We're so routinized. It's supposed to be a wake up call.
All images courtesy of Gregg Segal.