The state of solid waste management in Malaysia
The Star (Monday November 25, 2010)

An avid photographer hits the dirt trail in search of rubbish, and returns home with a new conviction.

HOW do you make rubbish look good? That was the challenge that self-styled “photocrafter” Suchen S.K. faced when he was commissioned to take pictures for Wonderland ... Beyond The Bin, a coffee-table book about solid waste management in Malaysia.

To be fair, his task wasn’t exactly to make garbage look good. Sure, many of the pictures in the book are quite interesting and artistic; some are even quite pretty despite the subject being well, literally rubbish.

But upon closer inspection, they also convey a sinister and rather alarming message – that we need to care more about where our trash goes, or we’ll face a very stinky future.

Mountain of waste: Taken at a landfill in Selong, Johor. This photo is the cover picture for Wonderland ... Beyond The Bin, a coffee-table book commissioned by the Danish International Development Assistance (Danida). The photos in the book depict the current state of solid waste management in Malaysia as seen through the eyes of Suchen S.K., a self-styled ‘photocrafter’.
Commissioned by the Danish International Development Assistance (Danida), Wonderland was born out of a necessity to create more awareness among the general public regarding solid waste management in Malaysia.

Danida has been in Malaysia for more than 15 years, helping and cooperating with the Malaysian Government in matters concerning environmental protection and solid waste management. But that has not been enough.

“All our efforts would come to nought if the general public is not aware of it. We saw this as a great chance to create some awareness about the solid waste situation in Malaysia,” said Danida chief technical advisor Ib Larsen, who likened the project to a similar book called Smoky Mountain, a coffee-table book about landfills in Manila.

“We wanted a book that would look at garbage in Malaysia from a photographer’s point of view, and still present the reality of the situation, whether it is positive or negative.”

‘Photocrafter’: Suchen S.K. travelled around Malaysia for almost two months to take pictures of rubbish and solid waste for the coffee-table book.
Larsen first offered the job to Suchen in April after seeing some of his work.

“My first reaction was: What? A book on rubbish?” recalled Suchen with a laugh. “Personally, I thought this would be an interesting project because it gave me a different sort of challenge: How do I make rubbish look good?”

From the outset, Suchen knew that this would be his smelliest assignment yet.

“I knew it was going to be a smelly ordeal. At one landfill, I hitched a ride on the back of a garbage truck. Unfortunately, its mud flaps were not working, so I got sprayed with sludge and mud on the way in!” recalled the 36-year-old Perlis-born photographer who specialises in portraits, travel, and event photography. He was the official photographer for the last two editions of the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival. His work has appeared in international publications such as National Geographic and Reader’s Digest (for his portfolio, visit www.suchens.com).

For this project, Suchen dedicated two months to visiting landfills and recycling plants, hitching rides on garbage-laden trucks and boats, while capturing some of the most honest and sobering images on the waste-management situation in Malaysia.

His very first shoot for Wonderland was at Kampung Sembulan, near Kota Kinabalu, a village that was filled with garbage. “It was quite disturbing to start the shoot there, with all those kids playing and families living amongst all that rubbish,” he said. “The sad thing is that there were kids playing with used tyres and rubbish, and walking around shoeless even though there is broken glass everywhere.”

Starting the shoot there also got him buzzing to get on with the project, because he felt more people should know about things like that. “There are people actually living amongst all the trash we throw out! This is the reality of the trash situation in Malaysia, which many of us don’t know,” he said.

Living with trash: The inhabitants of this village in Kota Kinabalu are surrounded by trash.
Later, Suchen and writer Bob Renshaw (a civil engineer turned travelling photographer) rented a car and began their tour of Malaysia. Their plan was to cover every single state so that they could get an overall view of the situation in the country.

“It was like a tour of Malaysia’s landfills! Bob and I got in the car on June 4. Our one rule was to avoid the major highways – if there was a road that was not the highway, we took it!” he said, adding that in total, they drove more than 5,000km in that one-and-a-half-month period.

Given a free hand with the project, Suchen took well over 3,000 photos, including bleak, unsettling pictures of children playing with garbage, villagers openly burning rubbish and disturbing photos of mountains of rubbish. He even caught a litterbug in the act of throwing garbage out of a van, and was threatened by illegal sand miners when he took photos in a landfill next to their mine.

What’s the use? Despite there being an entire row of garbage bins available for use, one inconsiderate litterbug just couldn’t muster the effort to open one of them and throw his paper cup into it.
At the same time, he also tried to portray the good side of things, documenting the efforts of the people who collect our trash every day, as well as several laudable efforts in educating children about recycling.

The completed book contains over 600 pictures, most of which are Suchen’s (about 14% of the photos are by other contributors). Unfortunately, only 1,000 copies of the book were printed and given out to various governmental organisations and libraries; they are not for sale.

The photographer is currently in talks to hold exhibitions of the photos in Wonderland, just so more people can view them. “I feel that more people should see these pictures, as they show what is really going on with waste in Malaysia,” said Suchen, adding that working on the book was an eye-opener.

Unheeded: What’s the use of a warning sign if no one heeds it?
“About 90% of the people I spoke to did not know what happens to their rubbish after it leaves their homes. If I had not taken the pictures and seen the actual scenarios, I would not have known about it, either,” he said. “This was a front-seat look at what happens to our rubbish, and it has changed my perspective completely on why we need to start recycling. It isn’t just about saving the earth; it’s the simple fact that we are running out of space to put all our rubbish!”

 

- By MICHAEL CHEANG


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