Jon Goering – 2010 SPA Finalist

    Birth, life and death in the dump

    The city dump in Chinandega, Nicaragua, is a source of livelihood for many of the city’s poorest residents. Children work for their parents or grandparents collecting bottles scavenged from the garbage. The bottles are then sold to a middleman living on the outskirts of the ragged community built up beside the dump, who then takes the bottles into town and collects the cash for them at the recycling center. Those who are hard working and fortunate make enough money from selling bottles that they don’t have to scavenge for food in the trash. Babies are born there, and elders die there, many knowing no life other than their life at the dump. Young kids have a nearly unbreakable, universal will to make their world into a playground, no matter the circumstances. But as the kids get older they start searching for a way out: stealing, prostitution among girls as young as nine, and drugs.

    Even though they are not at the top of the social ladder, neither are they at the bottom. They work hard, earn their own keep and are not begging in the streets. But even though they have so little, there are still those who take advantage of them. Second hand clothing stores in the city go through donated items, taking anything saleable out before sending the donations out to those who really need them. What ends up at the dump is often useless for the residents: sweaters, high-heel shoes and thick blankets. A nearby school raises its funds on the sad story of the children who are sentenced to the dump for life, and yet all of the dump children I met have never even heard of the school. Most of the school’s students come from the surrounding neighborhoods to take advantage of the brand-new donated computers and Western-funded education. Their hair is combed neatly everyday and their uniforms are clean and fresh-pressed. They do not live beside a landfill. The workers looking for plastics or anything else of value clear the backs of the trucks that come barreling in to the dump each day. And yet these workers are not paid for preparing the city trucks to go back and load more trash. They do it because they depend upon a steady flow of trucks.

    The situation at this dump is really not much different than the situation at so many city landfills across the world. And I believe that is where the power of the story lies. The truth is that the setting for this story could be almost anywhere–the situation is so common. But to tell a powerful and meaningful story about everywhere, it is necessary to tell a powerful and meaningful story about somewhere. The story then works as a metaphor for what is happening in so many cities around the world.

    I first learned about the families living at the Chinandega dump near the end of my stay in Nicaragua. I had seen stories of families making a living off of dumps before, and I started off cool to the idea. But when I walked into the dump and met some of the people, I quickly realized it was impossible for me to just walk away. It was impossible for me to say to them your story has already been done, and it is not necessary for it to be told again. During this first visit I did the best that I could. I didn’t have a lot of time until I had to fly back, and it took some time to build relationships. I know that if given the opportunity I could take this essay to a whole different level. But I also know that I need help, and the help I need is not just financial. I need the help of documentary photographers who I consider among the best storytellers in the industry. And I am asking you to help me not walk away from this story.