In 2011, Peter Baryshnikov traveled throughout Central America documenting the lives of marginalized and impoverished peoples in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. “Guajeros,” the Spanish word for “trash pickers” serves as the title and subject of Baryshnikov’s series. His work offers a glimpse into the social and environmental consequences of Central America’s flawed waste system. While volunteering with the NGO Long Way Home, Baryshnikov was inspired to document these systems, simultaneously raising awareness of such circumstances while also motivating support for alternative employment and construction using discarded materials.
Although frequently overlooked, guajeros are an essential part of Central America, both as a subculture and an economic generator. Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador have few public recycling programs. Processes that are typically carried out by public services in the United States are executed by private businesses in Central America who buy recyclables from the guajeros and resell the materials to China. Baryshnikov captures the combination of crushing poverty and industriousness, illuminating the resourcefulness and humanitarianism in our modern age of consumption and waste. Organizations such as Long Way Home strive to break the poverty cycle and improve the circumstances for those struggling in these regions. Baryshnikov’s photographs are more than simply documentary. Although informative and enlightening regarding these frequently overlooked circumstances, Guajeros also presents a humanist and emotional message of support and hope.
This grouping of photographs comes from the series Baryshnikov completed for his senior thesis at the Art Institute of Boston. Upon returning from the three month shoot abroad, the artist narrowed his project from over 600 images – selecting 40 representative and romantically printed silver gelatin photographs to comprise the series. The images range from seductive yet grim landscapes to figurative works including individuals and animals. Baryshnikov’s poignant and deliberate manipulation of contrast, light and overall haziness result in beautiful and rich prints. The visual poetry and symbolism of the photographs stem from the juxtaposition of landscape and trash. The accumulation of trash in fact becomes its own landscape – as the black and white nature of the images join foliage and recyclables in multiple horizons. The absence of color has a strong impact on the series. In some cases, the figurative photographs include the subject’s direct gaze implying an awareness of their being documented. Nevertheless, their natural openness only adds to the rawness and power of the series.
The artist unofficially organized Guajeros into three different types of photographs: landscapes of both nature and trash, portraits of both people and animals, and transition images which show the constant flux and movement of individuals and materials. In Untitled 8, the massive expanse of mountainous terrain pulls the viewer into the image. The landscape includes darker round-shaped shrubbery in the background, and lighter leafy foliage in the foreground. Because of the values and tones of the image, one might not even immediately notice the long line of trucks following each other along the winding road in the valley below. This image of a natural landscape introduces the invasion of capitalism through the presence of the foreboding trucks. With Untitled 4, Baryshnikov includes more figurative elements. A crouched body, with its back and large hat facing the viewer, appears out of focus in the foreground of the image. The anonymous and universal figure stares into the distance, perhaps at the partial tent or the bird flying overhead. The ground appears covered in either rocks or rubbish and a thick veil of hazy dust coats the back lefthand side of the picture. Finally, in First come, First serve, Baryshnikov fuses some of these elements in what he deemed a “transition photograph.” In this image we see at least 8 people, including women and children, waiting behind a large truck pouring out the recently collected trash. Baryshnikov captured the moment where these people wait for the “best” discarded materials – on the left side of the truck we even see a cup falling in midair. The perspective of the image also situates the viewer in the scene, waiting for the discarding and dispersal. Additionally this representative images raises awareness of our exploitative globalized economy and the dangers and injustice that entails.
Baryshnikov is hopeful to publish the entirety of this series in book form and has had many influences for this project. Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies (1975) documented the roaming peoples of Europe’s Roma communities in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, France and Spain. The visual energy of the community mixing frenetic action with direct portraits can also be seen in Baryshnikov’s work. Edward Burtynsky, a more contemporary Canadian photographer, also inspired the artist. Known for industrial landscapes, Burtynsky made several excursions to China to photograph that country’s industrial emergence, and construction of one of the world’s largest engineering projects, the Three Gorges Dam. Similarly, Baryshnikov’s own professor of photography at the Art Institute of Boston inspired Guajeros. Jack Leuders-Booth, and his wrenching photo essay Inherit the Land documented the personal lives, dwellings and struggles of families who live and work in the garbage dumps of Tijuana, Mexico. Though Baryshnikov worked within the tradition of these great artists, Guajeros uniquely examines lives and scenes in these Central American landfills, accumulating and rummaging for recyclables. The powerful images, silvery tones and important messages inspire viewers to consider our consumption-based lifestyle – and those affected by such waste worldwide.