Trash trail

A cof­fee-ta­ble book of­fers a sober­ing look at the state of waste man­age­ment in this coun­try.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MICHAEL CHEANG cschuin@thes­

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.

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.”

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 36year-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.

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.

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-half­month 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.

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.

“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!”

Photo by Suchen S.K.

Moun­tain of waste: Taken at a land­fill in Se­long, Jo­hor. This photo is the cover pic­ture for Won­der­land... BeyondTheBin, 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’.

Teach the

chil­dren: Bob Ren­shaw, civil en­gi­neer

turned­trav­el­ling pho­tog­ra­pher.

Bob and Suchen S.K. drove around Malaysia for al­most two

months to doc­u­ment the state of solid waste man­age­ment

in the coun­try.

‘Pho­tocrafter’: Suchen S.K. trav­elled around Malaysia for al­most two months to take pic­tures of rub­bish and solid waste for the cof­fee-ta­ble book.

What lies be­neath: These kids may mar­vel at the beauty of the ocean and beach, but un­der­neath the waves, things aren’t quite as pretty. This photo was con­trib­uted by Eric Madeja to the book Won­der­land...


Liv­ing with trash: The in­hab­i­tants of this vil­lage in Kota Kinabalu are sur­rounded by thrash.

(Pic be­low) A boy walk­ing bare­foot in the vil­lage, risk­ing cut­ting his feet on bro­ken glass, or even con­tract­ing tape­worm or other

bac­te­ri­atrans­mit­ted dis­eases. To us,

these liv­ing con­di­tions are ter­ri­ble to be­hold, but to this lit­tle boy, it is home.

The last straw: Dis­carded drink bags left be­hind, and (pic be­low) garbage

dis­posed of in­dis­crim­i­nately. Sadly, such sights are com­mon through­out

the coun­try.

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.

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