Writer Lisa Dowda and photographer Liz Ligon decided an oft-overlooked population of city workers needed their due. So, in 2008, the Brooklyn residents joined forces to create “Chasing Sanitation,” a project to promote the “oldest green-collared profession,” New York City’s Department of Sanitation workers.
Now that they’ve met their goal of raising $7,500 (and then some) through a Kickstarter.com campaign, they’re talking to exhibit curators and looking for sponsors and gallery venues.
Here, we talked to the duo about the thrill of the chase.
Why sanitation workers?
Lisa: If we chase cops, we’ll get arrested. If we chase firemen, we’ll get in the way, and it’s already been done by countless fans. So we Chase Sanitation workers – and we never stop laughing and crying and being amazed at the stories of their lives. Who knew there were so many germophobe sanitation workers?
Why does it matter that people know who these guys are?
Lisa: Guys and GALS! Because they catch such flack all the time and they’re everywhere, all day, all over the city, every day. Once I noticed one, I couldn’t stop seeing them everywhere. They’re the caretakers of all we discard. No one wants to talk to that person. There’s too much of some sort of elusive societal continental divide between that person and us. That’s what I’m interested in – the person that people just take for granted and shame or ignore but need so inherently.
Why not bus drivers or corrections officers?
Liz: Well, when you put it that way, it does matter that we know who our bus drivers and corrections officers are, too.
Lisa: Ha! I’ve thought about bus drivers. A lot. But there’s 7,000 employees of sanitation and we’re only two people! We knew we had a big project. Especially how we wanted to do it, the time we want to take to chase and interview them. And corrections officers … well, with as many parking tickets as I’ve gotten doing this project, I may be stuck interviewing them from prison anyway.
How do you decide who to approach?
Lisa: It’s all such a feeling, a connection. We’ll get in the car, early in the morning, drive around looking for trucks, try to catch someone’s eye – it’s really all in the eyes. If we can connect to them, we’ll go running up to the trucks at a stop sign or red light. I’ll give them our schpeel, and if they’re willing, Liz will shoot them for about an hour as they work and I’ll chat them up. I’m looking and listening for the strength of their own individual story and the life they live every day.
There must be some serious surprise and skepticism.
Lisa: Always. Everyone.
What’s their reaction like?
Lisa: They’re trained not to talk to the media. So every one of them tells us initially that they can’t talk to us, but they’re used to photographers and people watching them. But we just keep talking them into it, begging, pleading. Now with the website, and the word of mouth that’s circulating seemingly through all the garages, we show up now and get “Heeyyyyyy! Are you the Chasing Sanitation girls?” Which is such a hoot for us! Two years of begging and pleading and talking supervisors into letting us do our thing. What a relief!
How do you deal with resistant subjects?
Liz: There haven’t been too many who are resistant, but jeez, we all know how weird it is to be photographed. I get it. It makes me want to cry when I get an adamant “NO,” but we have to respect it. We don’t want to make anyone unhappy with this project.
What are the challenges?
Lisa: Juggling the 6,000 freelance and part-time jobs and commitments that Liz and I both have. It’s just such a luxury to chase and write and edit and post about these beautiful people. I’m my happiest standing on a corner with my journal writing while Liz shoots.
Liz: Well, it’s challenging to shoot because they are always moving, and it’s challenging to explain to others because of the subject and stigma. So we launched the website to let the work and project speak for itself.
What’s the thing that’s surprised you the most?
Lisa: We’re two years in and we’re still doing it. And the loyalty and the open love between all the crews. Oh, and the comedy routines! One guy told me recently, “We all have these stupid nicknames. They find one insecurity about you and it’s OVER!” Oh, and one more thing – when they find our site, they write, text, or Facebook their thanks and offers to help in any way they can. The wives, the girlfriends – they too offer to help.
Liz: I didn’t expect to fall in love with this project, and I fell in love with it on our first morning out.
What are the biggest misconceptions about sanitation workers?
Lisa: That they deserve this job. Like they’ve done something to get the worst job out there. But in New York, nine out of 10 sanitation workers will tell you they hit the lottery when they got this job and that it’s the best job in the city. One guy actually asked me what I did. Told him I’m a writer, but I work in an office as an office manager. He said, “See? I feel bad for you. I couldn’t do that. I get to be outside every day.”
Don’t kid yourself – they’re not stupid. They made a choice to do this job. There’s more loyalty among the street crews and throughout the sanitation department that you’ll ever see in most “Corporate America” offices, I’m willing to bet. It’s not about birthday cakes every year for everyone. It’s about showing up to the funeral of someone’s wife or mother while on break from the route, or listening to your partner as he goes through a difficult pregnancy with his wife, or stopping by the house after work just to hang out and catch up, or taking up a pool for a couple of chicks who want to write and photograph your life.
Liz: That they aren’t good people because they cause traffic jams. Really, in the eyes of many New Yorkers, they just represent a traffic jam for people on the way to work.
How smelly is this kind of work?
Lisa: I never notice it! Liz might because she gets closer to the trucks and the action on the chases. I mainly notice how hot or cold it is. Or how frizzy my hair is. Or how Liz is squatting and shooting snowplows in the middle of Broadway in midtown in the middle of the snow and the traffic around her.
Liz: There are moments mostly in the summer when I am shooting, but for the most part, I don’t notice.