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Sophia Li ’21: The Transfer Station

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2021

The Transfer Station is a documentary photography project that examines what our waste says about who we are as people today. As our society’s waste gets continuously transferred, The Transfer Station addresses the question: where will it all eventually go? What will become of our discarded, once-valuable possessions—and of us?

About the Project

In an age driven by consumerism and mass production, products become obsolete at increasingly rapid rates as new products are rolled out and bought by millions every day. Garbage is the inevitable byproduct of our throw-away society. At transfer stations, trash and recyclables are sorted into different compartments by category, to be packaged and shipped off in tightly compressed bales to landfills, incinerators, and recycling centers across the world. Yet, transfer stations are much more than just temporary houses for discarded refuse. They serve as a window into the culture, lifestyle, economics, and technology of communities.

This summer, I received funding to explore the sociological and environmental issues surrounding the transfer and disposal of waste in my home state of Massachusetts through photography. As landfills and recycling markets continue to decline, solid waste disposal capacity in Massachusetts is projected to reach zero by the end of the decade. According to a 2019 study, “the state will need to aggressively leverage its transfer station […] and export market to reach more distant disposal facilities” (“Solid Waste Facilities | Mass.Gov”). In my project, I visually captured how different communities define and process garbage as well as the environmental consequences of consumer culture as encapsulated by transfer stations. I divided my project into three phases: research, creation, and publication. Throughout the process, I conducted online research, visited countless trash and recycling sites, and interviewed the people who worked at and used these facilities.

By questioning the dichotomy between aesthetics and ethics, documentary photography enabled me to explore the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity as it relates to our waste systems. Inspired by my fascination with things forgotten and left behind, I strove to challenge people’s preconceived notions about trash by revealing both the overlooked beauty and horrific realities within transfer stations. I chose to work in color, as opposed to black and white, photography in order to fully convey the sensorial dimensions of trash and its implications. Though my project is far from finished, I plan to ultimately exhibit my work in print to display in galleries and publications as well as online to share with audiences everywhere.

Reflecting on Arts Amidst COVID-19

Support from the Benenson to pursue such a large-scale documentary project independently was invaluable to my development as a photographer. With the generous funding provided by the Benenson, I was able to afford the resources and carve out the time to build my photography portfolio, refine my aesthetic style, and define my artistic voice amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to dedicate a summer and focus my energy on honing my artistic craft without financial stress.