A BRIEF HISTORY “Families of the Dump”
My social documentary photography project “Families of the Dump” dates back to 2013. In 2013 after viewing a CNN story on YouTube I learnt of Burmese refugee families who were living in a garbage dump in Mae Sot Thailand. I had been searching for an important very human story to tell. The families in the dump became for me that very important, life-changing story.
In the vicinity of the Mae Sot dump approximately 100 families who have escaped Burma (Myanmar) live and work. The people are mostly from the Mon and Karen ethic groups but there are also other groups in the population. They have escaped Burma for economic and or political reasons. Many families working the garbage in Mae Sot have experienced war and extensive human rights abuses. Life in the garbage is a better choice for them, a better option than where they came from. They can work everyday, make money and build better lives in Thailand at the dump than they could back home in Burma.
At the Mae Sot dump all types recyclable goods are of value, plastics, bottles, cardboard, metals etc. Everything is dug out of the waste and then resold to local buyers based on weight and quality. Everyday the people, sometimes-entire families including children and the elderly come out into the garbage to scavenge. Food is often taken out of the waste, raw meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, foods of all types, everything of value is used.
The families either live in shacks directly on the garbage, or next to it. Many of the photographs in this presentation were made in the homes the people live in, sometimes up to 9 human beings in a single dump shack.
My first trip to Mae Sot and the dump of the families was in April/May 2013. I took a second trip in 2013, another in 2015, 2016 and a 6-month trip in 2017-2018. Over that time period I have visited the dump over 100 times. The work has been both photographic and donation in nature (please see end section for the donation work).
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What were some of your early experiences with photography?
I started in photography when I was 14, after taking a darkroom class in my shop education course. After high school, I tried to get into a college photography program, but was rejected two years in a row. I got angry and frustrated so I decided to do it alone. Making the kind of pictures I wanted to make. If a school would not accept me then I would teach myself.
When I was 21, I took all my cameras and darkroom gear, borrowed my parent’s motorhome, and drove from Edmonton to Vancouver, Canada before heading South into the United Stated for 6 months of picture making. I ended up photographing in an African American ghetto in Oakland, California. Met many friends there, people who lived in a completely different culture, and with very different life experiences than my own.
For me, it was a life changing event. I learned so much. I photographed the jazz scene there as well as heroin users and ex San Quentin convicts. It was a real eye opening experience for a naive 21 year old white boy from Canada. That 6 month trip cemented the way I would do things in the future, gave me a working method to make photographs.
There was another 6 month US trip 5 years later. Later in life there would be a 3 month, 10 month, 1 year and 6 month long trips to Thailand. I just worked whatever job I could, saved money, when I had enough, I dropped everything and went to make my pictures!
What do you do for work? How does this work affect your photography?
For the last 25 years I have been working as a night time security guard. Gerry Yaum is a pseudonym, the made up name Yaum means security guard in Thai.
The good part of being a guard is that you have plenty of free time during the night to study. I can read art biographies, browse photography books, clean my camera gear, roll bulk film etc. One of the most important things I do during my security nightshifts is to study languages. I have learned to speak a fair amount of Thai and to read and write a bit. Language is key when it comes to doing social documentary photography. You can build friendships and build trust when you can speak directly with your subjects. I am now trying to learn Burmese so I can speak to the people at the dump.
Most importantly, working night security allows me to plan my photo projects. I can think things out, work on ideas, get everything settled in my mind.
Tell me a bit about your project, how did it get started? How did you learn about this community?
Well now you got me going, I can talk all night and on about ‘Families of the Dump”. I started to photograph inside Thailand way back in 1996. Initially, I was photographing the night scene in Thailand. Mostly concentrating on sex workers who worked with Western sex tourists. I did a series of portraits with female, male and transgender (ladyboy) workers. After doing that work on and off for around 15 years I was burned out and needed to go in a new direction. I then left the bar world to photograph in Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum. This was a series of portraits done of people in Klong Toey, their lives, their stories.
In 2012, I was working as a night security guard looking for another subject to photograph. I wanted to tell an important story, a story of good people who had been forgotten. Not only that, I wanted to do photographs that could help the people in the pictures. So I looked online, and searched for ideas through out my security nights.
In an Asian newspaper story, I found an article about people in Siem Riep, Cambodia, working in a garbage dump. I thought that might be what I was searching for. I have been to Cambodia several times, but do not speak much Khmer. I thought, “maybe I can do this type of photographs somewhere in Thailand.” The idea being that I could then speak Thai to my subjects, learn about their lives, explain why I was making photos, build trust, make friends, etc. So I did a search on ‘Thailand garbage dumps’ and up popped Mae Sot and the families who work there. The strange thing about this story is of course that very few people in the dump speak Thai, the family members all speak Burmese and their own particular dialect depending on what ethnic group they are from, Karen, Mon, etc. Probably less than 10% of the people in the dump speak any Thai. So when I got to the dump, my Thai was sort of useless. I have been trying (‘trying’ being the key word) to learn Burmese ever since.
The project is basically my interpretation of the lives the families live in the garbage. We work together making the pictures and later on I show the work and tell the stories, on my blog, on my social media and in exhibitions at galleries and other sites like libraries. The photos, people seeing the pictures lead to all the donation work that is now being done.
My first trips to the dump in April and November of 2013, I would just hand out bags of food to different dump shacks, 2 or 3 bags each trip. Over time that evolved into much more. At the company where I work security, I showed the pictures to my coworkers and they started to donate hats, toys, clothing and money. So I started to take and distribute those things in the food bags. Later people started to give me money. With the donated money I would buy rubber boots, more rice, and other food goods to hand out to the families. With more money donations we (myself and the donators) started to buy headlamps, some basic medicines and a better quality boots for the families. In 2017-18 we did over $4000 CAD in donations, this coming trip I have $1630 CAD that I will use to buy goods to donate. For me, this is all a dream come true. The photos have led to direct help for the people in the pictures, as it should be.
From your years working on this project, what are some stories that have stayed with you? What do you take away from these moments?
On my 3rd day in the dump, near a group of dump shacks, an older Burmese mother said something to me in Burmese, then placed her fingers together side by side. I had no idea what she was talking about about, she then repeated the strange hand gesture a second time with more Burmese talk, which I still did not understand. I smiled, nodded and walked away to do some dumpscapes down the road with my 4×5 camera. As I was making those photographs I looked back and saw a table had been setup up on the roadway. Curious, I headed back. There were people gathered round and a young couple dressed in their best clothes. The woman was wearing a pink jacket shirt, with a long golden skirt, she had beautiful fresh flowers in her hair. Next to her a man was wearing a clean white long sleeved shirt and a traditional Burmese blue Longyi (a cloth tied at the waste and worn as a long skirt). I realized that this was a wedding and the pressed fingers gesture represented marriage, a joining of a man and woman becoming husband and wife. The husband was 17, the wife 15. I made pictures, donated some money to the new couple and shared the small amount of food and drink (shared hot chocolate) provided. It turned into a great time. I lent the family my point and shoot digital camera and they made a series of pictures of each other. Family photos while standing in front of the walls of dump garbage. When I returned to Canada I had the images printed up and then later in November 2013 during a return dump visit, I handed out the wedding photographs. As you can well imagine the pics were a big hit! Loved by all, smiles everywhere.
One early morning that first year in the dump I was photographing with a 4×5 camera on a tripod. An hour or so in I heard lots of yelling, there was just this sudden unexplained panic then everyone in the dump was gone. They all ran for cover and had disappeared into dump shacks or the nearby sugar cane field. It was surreal, the whole event only took seconds. In a flash all the people in the open were gone, all the people that had been working disappeared. I had no idea what was going on, I just stood there with my camera looking stupid, trying to figure out what to do next. I asked myself, “What was happening?” Figuring I better get my ass out of there, I grabbed all my gear, put the 4×5 on my shoulder and stumbled over to the nearby sugarcane field hiding area with the others. I stood there with an old man I knew a bit and he just shook his head he said in English “Burma!” then shook his head again. Then I heard it, the sound of a helicopter in the far distance (the Myanmar-Burmese border is very near to the garbage dump). I had not realized it before but it was quite loud now. Everyone had run away from that sound, the sound of helicopters frightened everyone. I was never quite sure what happened but I think this is the story. The people in the dump thought the Burmese military were coming across the border in a chopper to get them! What you have to understand is many of these people are escaping mass murder, rape, war and loss. Many of the people in the dump have experienced genocide. That noise triggered something from their jointly held past, and they just ran in fear without thinking. After a few minutes the helicopter noise went away and everyone returned to work. It was as if nothing had happened. I started to take pictures again with a new insight into what these peoples past lives were like.
During my last trips to to make photographs at the dump in 2017-2018, I spent about 4 months photographing the dump at night. The photos in your selection are from that time period. I would walk the garbage all night while the families worked, making pictures, always looking for photos, trying to tell the story as best I could. This one time I was making photos, standing in complete darkness as usual, the only light coming from the headlamps of the people working. Suddenly, I felt something grab my left hand. I looked down and there was a bald young girl (children have their heads shaved because of the lice problem), maybe 5 or 6 looking back up at me and smiling. She just held my hand tightly and just looked up at me. It was a very simple and very beautiful thing, I will never forget it. We walked around the dump for 10 minutes before she let go. I then continued to make pictures. I do not know who she was, but it is one of those moments that sticks with me. It is one of the the reasons I go back to the dump again and again. I feel an obligation to return, a duty to try and help that anonymous young child who held my hand.
Do you still see the same families when you go back?
That is the best part of the whole social documentary photography process. Because you become so involved in the lives of your subjects you see them over and over again, this happens for years on end. When I did my series of portraits on sex workers in Pattaya Thailand, I photographed many different workers over many different years, it is the same with “Families of the Dump”. Most of the family members know me by name because we have established long term relationships. One example, is from that earlier wedding story. I photograph that same couple every trip, first in 2013 at their wedding and every trip since. I now have photographed 2 of their children, this coming trip when I return to the dump in a few days I expect to be photographing their 3rd child. Of course some people leave and new families come in, but for over the 6 years I have been photographing at the dump I have established long term relationships with dozens and dozens of people, so many people I have lost count.
Being able to photograph family members over many years, to be able to photograph the children as they grow up is a wonderful experience, it connects you to everyone on a much deeper and personal level. You remember that little girl as a baby, you remember that older person when they were still healthy and strong, you see the different family members interact and work together for years. Longevity, continuance in photographic works adds depth and nuance to everything. It is the only way to do things in my opinion, it adds so much richness to everything.
When people donate, how do these funds help?
Yes, yes and YES! There is no waste, no administration costs, 100% of the money goes for goods that are then donated to the families. It is a simple process. I go to an ATM machine in Mae Sot, I then go buy what is needed at local stores and markets. I buy headlamps, rubber boots, rice, food goods, over the counter medicines, working tools, treats for the kids (lollipops, cookies) and I haul it all on my rented motorbike (I pay for the bike out of my security guard money) out to the dump and hand it out directly to the families. Your hand, to my hand to their hands. No BS, no waste.
I can speak Thai well enough to negotiate good deals with the Thai folks selling goods at the markets. In fact sometimes when the Thai market sellers see what I am doing they actually donate some free things of their own, usually for the dump kids, hats, balloons etc. What I have found is that if you give freely, if you help others yourself, if your heart is in the right place, others will join in, they jump on the bandwagon and help. People are usually good, you just need to give them a chance to be good.
I should also mention I document everything, I make photos of the bought goods, of the handouts to the people. I also do videos if I have time. Everything is on the up and up, I try to make things as transparent as I can, 100% of the money raised through donations is handed out in goods.
The donation money raised is a combination of money donated by friends and by money I raise through my work as a security guard or through my artist talks at galleries. I also try to donate my artist fees from any exhibitions I get as well. So it becomes the perfect circle of art life. I make the photos in the dump, the photos are exhibited, the money from the photos being exhibited and the money donated by people who see the pictures goes directly back to the people in the photographs. So making photos creates funds to buy boots and headlamps for the “Families of the Dump”. IT IS PERFECT!
As a photographer, how do you engage with these families? Do you get to know them before you take the first photograph?
I take things slow and easy, return again and again to establish trust, friendships and long term relationships. The people in the dump are escaping all kinds of personal suffering. The last thing they need is some smart ass rich western white guy who is dragging around 4 Leica cameras making pictures. So I try to build things up slowly over an extended period of time.
Now 6 years in, it is quite easy to photograph at the dump for me. Most everyone knows the deal, knows why I am taking photos. Many folks see it as a collaborative effort to tell their story, most people at the dump trust me now. We work together as a team. The only time there might be an issue is with new families who do not know me. Then it is a matter of them getting used to me and the cameras. I get positive comments and support from the established folks, they all talk amongst themselves. It is a karma thing, if you’re good, positives comes back at you, if you’re a selfish SOB, that comes back at you too. Because of past actions lots of good karma comes my way, I am very lucky.
Many photographer types just show up at the dump, take stuff for themselves and never give back. Always felt that type of photography was so selfish and predatory. I wanted to take my photos of course, it is what drives me but I also wanted to give back. So when I first arrived back in April of 2013, the first thing I did before making my first picture was hand out 3 bags of food to some of the dump shacks. Only then did I start to very slowly photograph.
I never take photos unless I have permission. If someone does not want to be photographed, then fine, I will move on with a smile. It is so important to treat everyone with the proper respect. To follow their wishes. To not exploit their situation for your personal benefit. That relates back to the Yaum name thing I mentioned earlier. The reason I came up with the name YAUM is that I never wanted my real name on a wall, getting my real name on a wall in a gallery is of no importance, who cares. It always seemed to me to be a bit exploitive to use your real name up there beside the pictures. All I want to do is tell the stories, tell the people’s stories, that is VERY important to me, the rest does not matter. My simple photography philosophy is, treat everyone you photograph with complete respect, give back as much as you can, and tell their stories not yours.
What is your process like when you take photographs? Do you have a goal in mind or do you wander until something catches your eye?
I have ideas all the time. One of the good things about being a security guard on nights is that you have a lot of time to think and plan. It is amazing how much planning you can do during 7 straight 12 hour night shifts in snowy, freezing Canada. So during work shifts I create all kinds of goals, have all kinds of gear thoughts, make all kinds of photo series plans.
While on site, I try my best to do my Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment’ thing but I also work very hard at achieving my goals. Hard work makes up for lots of screwups. What I try to do is capture the ‘heart’ of things. The visual moment that tells the story in the deepest and most personal way. Of course that is easier said than done, but I do my best. Like I said earlier most of what I do accomplish is simply a matter of hard work, not giving up and pushing through my countless mistakes.
Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore?
I have many ideas on the go, the one that comes immediately to mind is “KANATA”.
“KANATA” is a long term 10 year project I plan to do in Canada. It will be a series of landscapes and portraits using the traditional wet plate collodium process.
“KANATA” (the indigenous people world from the Cree language for Canada) will be a series of landscapes and portraits done across all of Canada. Canada is the second largest country in the world, most places I have not visited. I want to tell the story of what Canada is through photography. I plan on using 8×10, 11×14, 16×20 and even a super large 35×35 inch view cameras for this series.
Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
I would tell young photographers to make the kind of pictures they want to make regardless of any other factors. Simply put, follow your dreams. If you need to work other jobs to make only the type of non paying photographs you want to make, then do that! Only by following your heart and throwing yourself into your own personal photography can you be truly happy. For me, I became content in life when I made the decision to follow that path. Chase your own type of photographs down, have the courage, have the strength to follow your dreams and to create your own personal beauty. You will never regret it.