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.