Fstoppers Exclusive Interview With Peter Menzel's New Project: Waste in Focus

Fstoppers Exclusive Interview With Peter Menzel's New Project: Waste in Focus

Peter Menzel is an award winning photojournalist whose work has appeared in many national and international publications such as: National Geographic, Time, Wired, Geo, Stern, Paris Match, Life, Le Figaro and Forbes. Today his new project: Waste in Focus. A documentary project that profiles eight families in four different cities with one weeks worth of trash. This will be unveiled in Times Square today and Fstoppers had the opportunity to interview him about it, check it out!

Peter Menzel and his wife Faith D’Aluisio have traveled the world multiple times over capturing our attention with with their in-depth projects about robots, our worldly possessions, and a project that made serious rounds on the web, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.  Their latest project, Waste in Focus, centers around what Americans throw away and recycle. The project is made up of eight families surrounded by one weeks worth of their trash, broken down into what is recycled and what goes into the landfill. Menzel's images provide a startling look at the reality of our waste as Americans.

Waste in Focus was sponsored by Glad, during my interview with Menzel we discuss their partnership in further detail.

Follow the link to view Glad's online gallery where Waste in Focus lives, as well as read how you as a consumer can reduce waste:



The Project: Waste In Focus


Bonnie and George Cooke of Atlanta, Georgia,
with their children Kyle, 16, and Tristan, 18, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables and landfill trash, in February. Recyclable items (and food scraps fed to their chickens) are on the left-hand side of the photo, and items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 61 lb. Fifty-six percent of it (34 lb) was landfill and forty four percent of it was recyclables and food scraps (27 lb).



Jacqueline and Kenneth Griffin Jr. of Atlanta, Georgia,
with their children Kenneth “Tre” Griffin III, 9, and Antonio, 7, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables and landfill trash, in February. Recyclable items are on the left-hand side of the photo. Items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 41.1 lb. Seventy-five percent of it (31 lb) was landfill and twenty five percent of it was recyclables (10.1 lb).


Yuliya Radchenko and Walid Halabi of NYC, New York,
with their children Zacharia, 7, and Khalid, 11, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables and landfill trash, in February. Recyclable items are on the left-hand side of the photo. Items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 21 lb. Fifty-two percent of it (10.9 lb) was landfill and fourty-eight percent of it was recyclables (10.1 lb).


Charlene Wimms and Donell Brant of NYC, New York,
with their children Darius Brant, 9, and Terrard Wimms, 16, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables and landfill trash, in February. Recyclable items are on the left-hand side of the photo. Items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 28.9 lb. Seventy-nine percent of it (22.9 lb) was landfill and twenty-one percent of it was recyclables (6 lb).


Jana and Kelly Anderson of Phoenix, Arizona,
with their children Kayla, 16, and Evan, 14, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables and landfill trash, in December. Recyclable items are on the left-hand side of the photo. Items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 38.9 lb. Seventy-one percent of it (27.6 lb) was landfill and twenty nine percent was recyclables (11.3 lb).


Esther and Viliulfo Zepeda of Phoenix, Arizona,
with their children Amy, 15, and Jessica, 18, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables and landfill trash, in December. Recyclable items are on the left-hand side of the photo. Items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 36.3 lb. Eighty percent (28.9 lb) was landfill and twenty percent was recyclables (7.4 lb).


Lisa and Phil Burnham of San Francisco, California,
with their children Tristan, 15, and Elouise, 10, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables, compost-ables, and landfill trash, in January. Recyclable and compost-able items are on the left-hand side of the photo. Items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 33 lb. Eleven percent (3.7 lb) was landfill and eighty nine percent was recyclables and compost-ables (25.3 lb).


Monica McCrary and Mike Rao of San Francisco, California,
with their children Jared Rao, 13, and Braeden Rao, 10, surrounded by a week’s worth of their recyclables, compost-ables, and landfill trash, in January. Recyclable and compost-able items are on the left-hand side of the photo. Items destined for landfill are to the right. Their total household waste for this week was 30.4 lb. Seven percent (2.1 lb) was landfill and ninety three percent was recyclables and compost-ables (28.3 lb).


The Interview

This project is really close for you and Faith, how long did it take you from pre-production to completion?

Peter: It actually took about two months of actual shooting and production; but it took many, many, more months to actually figure out how to make it work. The object of the project was to get a dialogue started on household waste in America. Glad offered us complete freedom to pretty much do what we wanted with the project. If you've seen some of our other books, you know that for the past twenty years we've been traveling around the world shooting rather large projects that took years. Photographing 30 families in 24 countries with one weeks worth of food; or 30 families in 30 countries with all their possessions outside of their house; or a hundred people with their daily diets calorically totaled. Those projects took a long time and with every one of those books that came out people asked us "that's really, really interesting and I've got a great idea for you: show what people throw away, what Americans in a consumer society throw away." We always had to table [the project] because we couldn't figure out how to do it and we didn't think it was a book project that could support itself financially. When Glad offered us this thing, we really thought twice and were wondering "how the heck could we actually make it happen?" Were we going to pile up a bunch of trash, ask somebody to save their trash for a week and then dump it all out in their living room? That wasn't going to work too well for a number of reasons. We came up with this idea after months worth of experimenting with different methods of building the set. [The set was built] on clothes racks that are portable, we spray painted them black so they'd look nice and stretched bird netting over them; after we cleaned, cataloged, sorted, and weighed people's trash we put it up onto three panels so it could be compared and it would all be easy to understand.

How did you go about picking these families, was there a casting, or pre-production process with the families?

Peter: The pre-production process took quite awhile too. My partner, Faith, pretty much developed most of the methodology for this, after we figured out how we were gonna actually physically do it; then you’re right the the big part was getting real people, real families, to participate. The criteria that we had was choosing families that have two children between the ages of 7-18. We needed a four person family and they needed to be somewhere in the middle. They couldn’t be living in a Mc’Mansion or living in a shelter. They had to be in an apartment, condominium or a house, but they had to be sort of typical Americans and we chose four cities and two families for each city. After we had spent several weeks trying to use our regular method, which is using colleagues, people that we know, academics and just networking; we were finding that, with the time crunch we had with pulling this off in a couple of months, it wasn’t going to work. We hired some professional casting people that went out and used their methods of casting, [who] found people that were real families, nobody could’ve been a model or in T.V. or media or anything. It had to be people that weren’t exposed to media and that wanted to do this. Who were able to share something about their own lives in order to contribute to the dialogue that we were doing; which was a public service announcement that has a lot to do with the environment.That’s how we did it. A casting agent in each one of those four cities found us families, we interviewed them on the phone and then we went to the cities and we actually met them. We chose which families we wanted to do and then we set them up with bins where they collected and sorted their recyclables and for the week. Before we actually did any of that, Faith had sort  of extensive interviews with the families to find out what their normal habits were for collecting trash, recycling, composting (if they did any) and whether they used a garbage disposal; So that they wouldn’t change their habits when they were actually doing it for the weeks that they were collecting their stuff, it had to be as real as possible. That’s what happened and then at the end of the week we picked everything up, spent a day and a half in a hotel room cleaning it all up, putting it on these panels and then in a rental truck bringing it back to the families, setting it up and then using all the studio lights and everything; we sort of built a set in their house and photographed them.

That sounds like an insane amount of work but really rewarding, the project looks great...

Peter: It is a lot of work and the deal is, if you want to make a photograph that’s not just a pretty picture, that has a lot of data in it, you've got to do the homework and you've got to do all that other in-between stuff that takes a long time. That’s what we did. I think Faith and her assistant did most of the clean-up, laying, and the calculations of everything. They did an incredible job.

Why do feel that civic duty and photography cross paths so often, especially in Photojournalism?

Peter: I've been doing this for more than 40 years, the first twenty years was spent pretty much doing things for magazines all over the world and in a lot of different countries. It was, pretty much, looking at extremes and looking at things that were just “gee-whiz” and I didn't really get tired of that, but understood that the work was going into magazines that people were looking at and maybe were interested in for a little while then everything was getting thrown away. They weren't getting saved, contemplated, and passed around as much as they should have been. Then we were coming up with larger global projects that looked at single questions like: what do people value, what do people have all over the world and what do they value? We went around and shot thirty families, just average families, in thirty countries with everything that they had outside of their house. We asked them what they valued and we did interviews, got statistics and just did a really tedious, but really important job of documenting the image. That’s what is lacking in a lot of journalism and photojournalism. Because there isn't the amount of time and the amount of money and effort it takes to actually dig really deep and to understand a problem or a question. It's often treated really superficially; you parachute into a place and you do something really quickly and then you’re out of there; but if you have to spend a week or two actually contemplating something, setting something up, and then living with your subjects it changes the equation and you get a lot deeper understanding of the whole thing, hopefully when you end up publishing.

How do you hope people are going to react to these images when they’re unveiled in Times Square, what do you want people to take away from it?

Peter: We’re hoping that,  like other projects we've done where you compare yourself to everybody else, you’re not judging people by saying “oh they threw away too much of this or they wasted this or they had too many beer cans or whatever in the picture” it’s more about looking at the different categories of what happens to your stuff that you throw away. Some of its recycled or recyclable, some of it is non-recyclable and goes into a landfill and then there’s the big issue of food waste and what happens to that and if it goes into landfills, what’re the consequences of that and the big consequence of that is the amount of methane that’s produced when garbage is buried and I don’t know if you know it, but methane is one of the greenhouse gasses and it has twenty times the detrimental effect of carbon dioxide. Well for one thing food waste is the biggest single item that goes into landfill and this single biggest thing that goes into landfill is producing something really noxious for the environment, climate, and for the future of our planet. How do we mitigate that, the whole thing is about mitigating the amount of damage from consumer society and what we’re throwing away and families and people can make decisions about being careful about recycling and what they’re buying, but at the same time I think there’s two other factors: one is manufacturers taking a look at what they’re manufacturing and looking at their packaging, the other is to look at municipalities and to see what their regulations are for dealing with waste and how it is recycled, composted or sent to landfill. The whole thing is about a dialogue of understanding a little bit more, about the actual volume and also the portion of different things and how some things are much more damaging to the environment and to our economy quite frankly, rather than others.

It’s a long explanation, I haven’t figured out a ‘sound-bite’ just yet. Starting a dialogue and raising awareness, those are the key things that we’re trying to accomplish and we’re trying to do it in a non-judgmental way; By presenting facts rather than telling people facts, telling people what they should be doing.

Your project was sponsored by Glad who makes trash-bags and their owned by Clorox, what was that sponsorship like, with the project that you’re doing?

Peter: It’s not really anything. It was a completely independent, sort of a grant, that we had with this project. We had a wall between us and them, they couldn’t say who we were picking or where we were going. They asked us to make a project that would start a dialogue on waste in America and we did. We presented it and we did it, it’s up in Times Square, it’s up on websites, and it’s a public service announcement. That’s where it is. We’re independent journalists. We’re not corporate or whatever. <---should I delete the whatever, because it sounds so passive?

Your project is going to be part of a pretty big project New York City is doing. They want to reduce 11,000 tons of waste, Do you know anything about that or what they’re trying to accomplish?

Peter: Every one of the cities that we did, we also went to the recycling centers, looked at the landfills, talked to managers and experts on this. They've seen the brand new facility that NYC has in Brooklyn, on a pier, and one of the reasons that we chose New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Phoenix is because they’re all slightly different. San Francisco, I have to say is sort of the poster city for recycling and trash in the United States, because they've come up with a system that they've been working on for years and years of being able to divert something like 70-90% of what people throw out, what average families throw out. Something like 70-90% does not go to landfill anymore it’s either recycled or composted. The municipal regulations for San Francisco make it mandatory to both recycle and compost. There are laws and fines for not complying and they've been tremendously successful at reducing what goes into the dump and what is recycled. They've got a tremendously ambitious and quite environmental composting program that take people’s waste, compost-able waste, plant matter, both from families and businesses and they have a big composting facility outside of the city where they turn it into compost in a couple of weeks and sell it to farms, orchards and vineyards and divert a lot of the landfill waste.There are different ways to do it besides just actually composting, but I think New York City is looking into anaerobic digestion. Which is taking food scraps and processing it sort of like they do sewage sludge, which I don’t think you really want to get into. There are ways to take the stuff and not have it go into landfill, to get something out of it and produce gas that can be sold from that kind of waste, so it’s not going into the upper atmosphere and it’s not a greenhouse gas; it’s something that’s used.

Does NYC have a Timeline for this project?

Peter: That’s going to be announced tomorrow in Times Square by the sanitation department. They have pilot programs already, but this is going to be a big expansion of it, I’m not that familiar with their regulations, we don’t really know that much about it, yet.

Do you have any new collaborations in the works with Faith? Do you know what you’re going to be doing next, will you be taking a break, or continuing this project?

Peter: You asked whether we were going to be doing more families, we don’t really have plans on doing that. It would be terrific and to go around the world and do this same kind of thing. Look at families in Asia, Africa, South America and Latin America and see what they throw out. See how their municipalities and local governments deal with it, but we have no plans to do that because it’s a tremendously expensive thing to do and we haven’t got a sponsor for that, If you have one send them our way. We’ve got other things that we’re always working on, we’ve got exhibits all over the world and this project will be moving around. We've got a couple of other projects that we started a long time ago that are very long term that we’re chipping away at. We’re thinking long term and we’re always working on something.

Do you have time to talk about your technical process, our readers would love to know.

Peter: There’s a lot of lighting that goes on in these pictures, it isn't just natural light. I switched over to digital cameras when we invaded Iraq and had to send stuff back to magazines, I became completely digital then. I haven’t shot one piece of film since then and I’m really enamored with digital photography. It’s saved a heck of alot of equipment carrying around, but for jobs like this still you can’t just do post-production and fix the light. We carry a couple cases of lights. We have a big Octabox that is the main light, that’s lighting the family; then there’s two, three or four Dynalites and some battery lights that show the trash and recycling, cause’ you want your trash to look good.These frames that we built, we needed 14 ft laterally and then we needed to get back about 12 feet to take the picture. If somebody had a really tiny apartment, we really couldn't shoot in it, the last family we shot was in Brooklyn and they had a pretty small apartment, but we were able to put some lights in the bedroom and the adjacent kitchen, the set just barely fit into their living room; we were against the walls, and the camera was against the wall too. I had to tether it to an iMac and we were able to see the images, and let the family see the images too so everybody feels comfortable about how they're looking and how the whole thing is lit. They’re all photo-illustrations because the background is darkened in some. If the baseboard goes through the picture and it's really white, we'll knock it down a little bit just to make the main part of the picture not be interfered with because of the background, so we're calling these all photo-illustrations rather than just straight portraits.


Once the interview was over I felt so thrilled because I had gotten to speak with a photographer I greatly admire about a project that brings to light serious environmental issues. Thank you Peter and your team for taking the time to reach out to Fstoppers about this fantastic project and taking the time for the interview.

Please comment below with reactions, questions or feelings about Peter and Faith's project.

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1 Comment

I think this is a really great idea, but I just feel so much more could have been done with the execution. The lighting, location and poses to me feel like a rushed afterthought. Those frames holding the trash up are ugly and the lighting isn't consistent between shots. There are some faces in shadow, there's barrel distortion of people - it doesn't scream quality to me.