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Personal Work That Lands Assignments: Peter Menzel's Focus on Household Consumption

By David Walker


© peTeR meNzel FOR Glad
 Charlene Wimms and Donell Brant of New York City with their children Darius Brant, 9, and Terrard Wimms, 16, surrounded by a week’s worth of recyclables and landfill-bound trash in February.

For 20 years, photojournalist Peter Menzel and his wife, former TV news producer Faith D’Aluisio, have built a brand around their interest in personal consumption and the environment. For their 1994 book, Material World: A Global Family Portrait (Sierra Club Books), they traveled the world to photograph families who posed with all their possessions spread out before them. It was a bestseller that led to subsequent self-published projects, including Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (2005) and What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets (2010).

Last fall, while in Oslo to open a “Hungry Planet” exhibition, they received a proposal by e-mail for a project about residential waste. They’ve heard that idea before, and their response is always the same: Bring us a sponsor. Menzel and D’Aluisio spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and publish their projects, so they have to sell books. Waste is not a bestseller. “People like to have books on their coffee tables about things that are fairly pleasant to think about,” Menzel says.

But the pitch was from a PR firm interested in hiring Menzel and D’Aluisio to shoot a public service project about residential waste for Glad Products Company, the maker of food storage containers and trash bags. “They asked us to come up with an idea to show physically what [households in America] waste and throw away,” Menzel says.

Glad undertook the project “in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal to divert 80 percent of waste from landfills by 2020,” May Lam, associate marketing manager for Glad, said in an e-mail. The company wanted to hire Menzel and D’Aluisio for their signature style. “We were captivated and inspired by their Hungry Planet work,” Lam said.

Menzel and D’Aluisio were wary at first. “We have done practically zero advertising in my 44 years as a photographer,” Menzel says. They want to protect the editorial integrity of their brand, and they don’t want to help corporations engage in greenwashing.

But they are also worried about the future of the planet, and believe that everyone— consumers and manufacturers—have to waste less and recycle more. They figured the Glad project could allow them “to start a dialogue and raise awareness,” Menzel says.

First, however, they had to figure out if the project was even feasible. The idea was simple: Photograph families with all the recyclables and household waste they generate in a week. “But what do you do with that stuff? Put a tarp on their living room floor and dump it out in two piles?” Menzel asks rhetorically. “You couldn’t tell what was in the piles.”

He and D’Aluisio experimented, first with their own trash and then by recruiting another family in their neighborhood in Napa, Calif., to test their ideas. They separated the recyclables into categories and first tried hanging each item by plastic threads “like a huge mobile.” But “that would have been hugely expensive and time consuming,” Menzel says.

They then tried building a frame with wood, covering it with canvas and using hot glue or wire to attach each item. That didn’t work, either.

Finally they hit upon the idea of mounting everything on wheeled clothing racks. They searched the internet and found just the right style of rack. “Faith figured out a way to sew bird netting on the rack, and we put a piece of industrial Velcro on the back of every item.” The Velcro enabled them to attach the recyclables to the bird netting on the racks “and move them around like refrigerator magnets to make them esthetic.”

Convinced that they could pull the project off, they agreed to do it—but only on their terms.

“We told [Glad and its PR firm], ‘You have to treat this as an editorial project, treat it like a grant, and let us design it. You can’t tell us what to do or how to do it,’” Menzel says. Negotiations took several months, but Glad executives finally agreed to those terms.

“We fully believed in the caliber of their work and trusted that we would best enable this project by giving them full artistic freedom,” Lam says.

With an undisclosed budget that was commensurate with “a public service project, rather than a commercial or advertising shoot,” Menzel and D’Aluisio began looking for eight ethnically and geographically diverse families. Menzel contacted friends, photographer colleagues and journalists. He explained the project and said they were looking for “typical families with two kids between the ages of 7 and 18, that were not poor and not rich.”

To his surprise, he didn’t get a single response. So he turned to location scouts in San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta and New York for help. Menzel said he wanted “real people. No models, no actors,” which is his rule for all of his projects.

The location scouts also had trouble finding families. Menzel says, “It’s one thing to show what you eat in a week. But getting people to show what they throw away? It’s a little bit personal. It’s tremendously revealing.”

Compensation, which included a modest fee and Glad products, was not an enticement, but the location scouts had copies of Hungry Planet to show. They posted flyers in schools and libraries and hit the streets, and finally found willing families. Menzel and D’Aluisio screened them with phone interviews. “I talked to them in a down-to-earth way about their [recycling] habits,” Menzel says. “You don’t want people that are super conscientious, you want people who handle it in an everyday kind of way.”

Menzel provided the selected families with collection bins and instructions about separating their waste. He collected the bins after a week, and took them to a hotel suite where D’Aluisio and an assistant washed the recyclables by hand in the bathtub. Then they attached the items to the clothes racks for the portraits back at the families’ homes.

“When we tallied up the hours we spent building and then executing the project, we earned just slightly above San Francisco minimum wage [$10.74 per hour], but we do tend to overextend ourselves in the interest of doing a good job,” Menzel says.

The resulting images present a snapshot of the waste that the different families generate in a week, and of how household waste management practices vary from family to family and city to city. To supplement the images with information, and to encourage viewers to think about how to reduce their own waste, D’Aluisio researched the economics of recycling and environmental impacts of landfill waste.

Glad unveiled the photos at a press conference, held by New York City officials on April 10, to announce the expansion of compost collection in some neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. That composting initiative is part of the city’s effort to reduce landfill waste. Glad donated “a bunch of new trash bags that are supposed to be tougher” to the project, Menzel says.

The pictures were also displayed in New York’s Union Square on Earth Day, April 22. Various media outlets have also posted the pictures online, including Smithsonian.com, Parade.com and HuffingtonPost.com.

“It would be interesting to look at household waste in South America, Africa and Asia, and compare it to affluent Western countries,” Menzel says in retrospect. But it would be complicated. “We’re not going to take clothes racks around the world, hanging up people’s stuff in a village in Africa. It’s just not going to look the same.”

And, Menzel says, it won’t happen without a sponsor.

To see how Glad used Menzel’s photos, visit http://www.glad.com/trash/ waste-in-focus/

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