The photographs look like fine art. They are the work of garbage collectors from Hamburg using a rudimentary technique: a trash can converted into a pinhole camera.
The Trashcam Project began as an image campaign to boost the reputation of Hamburg's "boys in orange" - the trash collectors who deal every day with the stuff most of us would refuse to touch. It worked so well that the waste collectors have suddenly found themselves in the artistic spotlight for their bin photography, well beyond Hamburg.
Art instead of trash
Ten trash collectors participated in the project. They searched for the subjects for their photos, while two employees from the well-known advertising agency Scholz & Friends, which was behind the whole idea, transformed a standard gray, 1,100-liter (290-gallon) garbage bin into a pinhole camera.
The simple technique is nothing new. All that's needed is a tightly sealed container in which a tiny hole can be drilled. This opening acts as a lens, focusing the incoming light and projecting it on the inside wall of the container where photographic paper captures the image. In the case of the garbage bin, a simple flap covering the hole replaced the usual camera trigger.
Project participants were asked to choose their favorite view of Hamburg. One garbage collector, Hans-Peter Strahl, initially had his doubts about whether the contraption would really work. He chose the church in the city quarter of Altenwerder, a site he discovered while driving by on his motorcycle.
Strahl was amazed at the sight of the church standing alone in the middle of the industrial area, without a neighborhood surrounding it. He has since learned that the church once belonged to the village of Altenwerder, which was razed in 1998 to make way for the expansion of Hamburg's port area.
As a newcomer to the city, the sight immediately caught his eye. The 33-year-old originally comes from the north-eastern island of Rügen, a popular vacation spot with a high unemployment rate. Strahl left his home to find jobs elsewhere, and has been working with Hamburg's waste management department for the last five years. He likes his job, and doesn't think it has an image problem.
"You get out in the fresh air and move around a lot," he said, adding that he couldn't stand sitting around in an office all day.
Birth of bin photography
To create his photo of the church, Strahl had to expose his image for 45 minutes. "Much too long," he laughed. Some of his other colleagues needed even longer, up to an hour. It was a test of patience, because it was only possible to find out whether the photos had turned out much later, after they had been developed by lab technicians.
So, Strahl had to wait. "But everything turned out well in the end," he said with pride. Indeed - the stylish black and white photo with its mysterious aura is reminiscent of photographic art from the 1920s. The ad agency dubbed the unique artwork "Tonnografie," combining the German words for garbage bin and photography.
Since the completion of the project, daily life hasn't changed for the garbage collectors. They start early each day with their route; Strahl's is in the St. Pauli district, which is famous for its nightlife. They work in teams of five. Two of his colleagues have been at the job for more than 20 years. Most of them have vocational qualifications and studied to be masons, cooks, carpenters and painters, or previously worked in the automobile industry.
The garbage collectors enjoyed the bin photography project, regretting only that it had come to an end. However, their movable camera was broken during transport and now lets in too much light, making it useless as a camera.
But that hasn't detracted from the success of the campaign, which was awarded the Silver Lion at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. The sanitation department, which has posted the photos online, can now boast of its trash collectors and their headline-making photography.
Author: Heide Soltau / cmk
Editor: Kate Bowen