A closer look at our trash


John and Virgil, father and son, Crow Wing County Landfill, Brainerd, MN,

Virgil remembers scavenging bananas in the dump as a child

When Gina Dabrowski checks in to a bed and breakfast for a vacation, like many guests she checks out the local scene with the receptionist.

“So, are there any city dumps or transfer stations near here?” she asks.

Dabrowski admits her fascination likely appears odd to the average B&B staffer, and to her fellow vacationers. But Dabrowski has a soft spot when it comes to piles of trash.

As a child my dad took me to the dumps and we would help him scavenge, I remember pulling things out at the age of five, looking for metal he could sell. My dad made extra money for the family that way.

Such scavenging is now illegal, and no matter how much you drop off at the local dump, you can’t take anything else out.

Not so in Oaxaca, Mexica, where Dabrowski recently traveled. Dabrowski likes to think of scavengers as “independent contractors” of sorts; the dump serves as a source of business, which they take back into the local economy.


John and Scott, Sentence to Serve Program, Crow Wing County Landfill, Brainerd, MN

On prison release to work during the Household Hazardous Waste monthly drop off

Dabrowski, who has an exhibition up at Normandale Community College featuring some of her photographs of transfer stations and landfills, says she was first drawn back to the dumping grounds after a trip to China, in which she was astonished by the number of people around her, and by the general cleanliness. Where did all the trash go?

While environmental news often bombards us with images of children picking through mountains of hazardous materials in India, Africa and South America, it is rare that Americans get a close-up look at their trash that stays here at home. In our culture, it tends to just go “away.” Dabrowski says she’s working to change that:

I don’t have a political agenda, but just want to bring these landfills and the people who work in them to the public conscious in a way they might not be now.

Many of Dabrowski’s photographs involve people coming to the dump, posed alongside the items they’ve brought. In this way Dabrowski’s images give new life to the so-called “trash,” connecting it with a personal story, with nostalgia, and the passage of time.


The Family, Robbie, Colton, and Kristen, Crow Wing County Landfill, Brainerd, MN

Robbie wishes they allowed scavenging, now it’s against the law

Dabrowski just received a McKnight Fellowship for her work which is allowing her to take her exploration of landfills, well, deeper.

These landscapes are constantly evolving and taking new shapes, “massaged” by these tractors that are pouring on dirt, compacting them, adding even more dirt. What you find in those layers depends on what people are consuming regionally. So in Oaxaca there were a lot of flowers and fruits, and in Brainerd I keep seeing boats – paddle boats, pontoon boats.

For the next year Dabrowski plans to focus her attention on the landfill in Brainerd, as well as a landfill and transfer station in Virginia. She says the dumps are like mini-cities, with their own roadways, sometimes made out of crushed glass that’s been dumped there. And while she shoots her pictures, she’ll be contemplating the particular artistic challenges she faces with this subject matter.

Do you make trash beautiful in order to draw people in? Or do you expose the deep, deep ugliness of these dumps? How do you convey the dignity of the people who work with our trash everyday? How do you balance all of these ideas?


Refrigerators and Freezers, Crow Wing County Landfill

Appliances waiting to be stripped and shipped to China for recycling

Dabrowski’s photo exhibition will up in the Fine Arts Building of Normandale Community College through September 20; there’s an opening reception today from 4-6pm.

The show will travel to Central Lakes College in Brainerd in November.