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“Beijing Besieged By Garbage” Photo Essay by Wang Jiuliang

photo: Wang Jiuliang

A photo essay by Beijing Besieged By Waste director Wang Jiuliang appeared recently in Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, a new publication from UC Berkeley. In his artist statement, Wang details the landscape and events that led him to focus his mind–and his camera–on garbage. Wang writes:

The clean and beautiful hometown of my childhood memories – only a decade or two old – is nowhere to be found. This rapid transformation prompted me to start thinking about the problem of garbage brought about by modern civilization.

Starting out with little knowledge of where and how Beijing’s immense quantities of garbage are processed, Wang describes the process of discovering some of the truly unexpected elements of life in this world of waste.

I learned that, in actuality, the garbage we produce does not all go to legitimate, government-affiliated refuse landfills. A considerable amount of the garbage is channeled to the so-called underground garbage industrial chain… At first, I did not know where these illegal dump sites were. So, I rode my motorcycle and followed suspicious-looking garbage trucks. This is how I found the first few garbage dump sites. I carefully studied the visual characteristics of these garbage dump sites and used this information to find similar sites on satellite photographs of greater Beijing, marking every location that might be a potential dump site. Then, I went to each of the noted locations and confirmed their status. Using this method, I identified hundreds of illegal garbage dump sites one after another.

photo: Wang Jiuliang

In addition to opening his eyes to the sheer mass of waste being stacked in endless landfills around Beijing, Wang also became aware of, and deeply involved in, the culture of scavengers surrounding these dumps.

The conditions of these illegal dump sites are appalling. Perhaps only when you stand amid them, can you feel the immensity of the garbage. It often occupies tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of square meters of land and is over ten meters deep. At first, when I stood on garbage piles that were sticky, slippery, loose, and soft, I did not dare to move, fearing that I might be devoured by the refuse. The air was rank with a thick stench. I got dizzy and experienced headaches after less than ten minutes. The dump sites are so full of flies in the summer that the faces of anyone in the vicinity are covered with them, and the flies are impossible to drive away. Many scavengers work in such conditions, with no protection whatsoever, not even a breathing mask. I have great respect for these scavengers. Although they are in an ancient and humble trade, deep in their hearts they harbor the hope and dream of a better life. To understand their lives at a deeper level, I lived at the largest construction waste site for three months.


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