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Nigel Dickinson (UK)

Smokey Mountain

My approach to long-term documentary projects is to work from the inside, living within communities and getting to know the people I photograph; I want my work to reflect not only “my own point of view” but that of the communities and people I am documenting. In my formative years, I was influenced by the writing of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin,especially Benjamin’s 1934 essay “The Author as Producer.” It followed that my early work dealt with race and class, social protests, strikes, and solidarity movements. When I began working in greater depth with indigenous and marginalized communities,focusing on identity, culture, grassroots resistance,and sustainability, the line drawn between defending a way of life and protecting the environment became blurred. Human rights, land rights, sustainability, and protection of the environment, I realized, go hand in hand.

The Smokey Mountain rubbish dump, which started as a deep landfill site, sits on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. A gray cloud of acrid smoke rising from constantly burning garbage gives it its nickname. Two thousand casual workers, including some six hundred children, scavenge the dumpsite, collecting plastic bags, metal, plastics, and paper; everything is sorted, cleaned, weighed, and sold for recycling. This strenuous labor earns them each about a dollar per day. Waste pickers work nightshifts using miner’s lamps to illuminate their way; their lights are one of the most visually striking characteristics of Smokey Mountain. People work, eat, and sleep amidst the rubbish and constant fumes, as they do in the streets of Phnom Penh, where landless peasant families live and scavenge among the urban rubbish. All contend with pollution, crime, and disease, while the fruits of their labor end up in massive recycling warehouses.

In Asia, whole communities have developed out of this waste industry, which now handles some 75 percent of urban waste. What is a life of misery for some, others see as an example of sustainable development. Across Asia, the figures for the amount of trash recycled by such communities are staggeringly high compared with recycling in the developed western countries. Informal waste collection systems have environmental and economic advantages: reducing the need for landfill, saving natural resources, and providing an important lifeline for some of the world’s poorest people. But waste scavengers have dramatically shortened life expectancies, poor health, and bad living conditions. That cannot be ignored.

Nigel Dickinson


Nigel Dickinson is a British documentary photographer whose work focuses on the environment, the human condition, identity, and culture.

His early work, Hanging On by Your Fingernails, about a coal mining community during the 1984-1985 Great Strike, was published by Spokesman Press. Dickinson then participated in campaigns with Friends of the Earth in Borneo, where he photographed indigenous peoples and deforestation, winning a bronze award from the United Nations Environment Programme at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. He is now revisiting these communities decades later.

His Mad Cows series received a World Press Photo award in 1997, and part of the work in his Meat series was short-listed for the European Publishers Award for Photography. This work was shown recently at the Hayward Gallery, London, in the 2015 exhibition History Is Now. Over his career, Dickinson has also worked on the Balkan wars, the aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war, Sharia Islamic law in Kano,Nigeria, and South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Dickinson’s monograph Sara: Le pelerinage des gitans (Paris: Actes Sud, 2003) premiered at the Rencontres d’Arles in2003. Previous to that, in 2000, Dickinson was runner-up for the Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography with his ongoing documentary series Roma Beyond Borders. Selections from this long-term project, mapping the Roma’s route from Rajasthan toTexas, were exhibited at Visa Pour l’image Perpignan, France. Images from the project have also been published in National Geographic, Mare, Figaro, Stern, and GEO. Roma Beyond Borders will be published by Actes Sud and Dewi Lewis.

Smokey Mountain, his series on the giant rubbish dump outside Phnom Penh, won Photolucida’s Critical Mass solo exhibition award in 2011 and has been exhibited at the FotoTriennale, Odense, Denmark, and Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, Oregon. It will also be published as a book.

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