German Garbage Collectors Create Art by Turning Dumpsters into Cameras

Hamburg sanitation workers caught many by surprise with their stark, beautiful black-and-white images of the city they help keep clean

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Christoph Blaschke / Mirko Derpmann / Werner Bünning

Gruner + Jahr

Some people already think that modern art is garbage. And that’s what the German advertising agency Scholz & Friends was counting on when it came up with the Trashcam Project and turned Hamburg’s sanitation workers into amateur street photographers.

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The project began as a p.r. exercise to show the public what garbage collectors do all day. What came as a surprise, however, was just how artistic the photography turned out to be. Speaking to Der Spiegel, Roland Wilhelm, a 61-year-old garbage collector turned photographer, said, “It’s really something unique. Nobody expected it to be so successful.”

The camera the garbage collectors used was not a modern-day digital SLR, but a dumpster converted into a giant pinhole camera. Many objects can, in theory, be turned into a pinhole camera — all it requires is a lightproof box with a hole on one side to allow light to enter, and photographic paper on the other side to record the inverted image. Images can also be viewed in real time through the hole — a popular method for watching solar eclipses.

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The garbage collectors would take each picture by opening a flap over the 8-mm pinhole on the dumpster, with each exposure lasting anywhere from five to 70 minutes, depending on the light. Their innovative method was not without problems, however. They would often not know whether an image had been captured successfully until they developed the large-format negatives in an improvised lab each evening. There was also the problem of passersby trying to throw their trash into the camera, ruining the shot.

When the trashcam did work, however, the resulting black-and-white images were spectacular. Almost a square meter in size, the images depicted the everyday landscapes of the bin men — from the old docks in the port city to town hall. The jury at the Cannes Lion advertising festival certainly agreed on their artistic merit: the campaign was awarded the Silver Lion Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in the international advertising industry.

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For Wilhelm and his colleagues, this may be the end of their trashcam photography adventures – the dumpster was damaged while being transported around the city and they can’t use it for pictures anymore. They did get their own gallery opening, though — an exhibition of their photographs opened last weekend at an art space in Hamburg.

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