Scraping by as a French pensioner
By Eric Gaillard
One evening while returning home I came upon a scene that I had never imagined in a country as rich as France – people rummaging through supermarket trash bins looking for food.
In spite of the difficulties I would encounter, I decided to go ahead and meet these people head-on. That day I saw an elderly man waiting on a public bench. Quickly I understood that he was waiting for the trash container from a nearby neighborhood supermarket. I approached him, with my camera on my shoulder, and started a conversation, which stopped abruptly with a curt, “Leave me alone, don’t take my photo”.
I sat down beside him, changed the direction of our conversation, in the hopes of building trust. I knew that what I was asking him was difficult to accept. We spoke of other things when suddenly he opened up giving me his name, Eugene and his age, 87, and that he first rummaged for food during the war when he was twelve. “Times were difficult,” he told me, sighing. Eugene revealed that the money he saved from rummaging for food allowed him to pay for a flight to Thailand once a year to see his “girlfriend”.
Suddenly a supermarket employee arrived with the trash and in a moment, nothing else mattered. Eugene, in spite of his age, jumped up and quickly went towards the bins. There was competition with two other individuals who were also waiting for this moment. I followed with my camera and he turned and said, “Don’t show my face”. I respected his wishes to remain anonymous and started to photograph in spite of the others who started rummaging through the bin looking for food. Quickly everything was removed and then returned to the container. The treasure was not too bad: fruit, milk, a box of eggs which need to be sorted.
I continued to photograph Eugene as he arranged the food into bags. He said nothing. I followed several steps behind and asked if he was returning to his apartment. To my surprise he loaded the bags into his old car and told me that he was now off to another supermarket. I asked if I could follow him and he replied “Yes”.
When we arrived at the second supermarket he warned me, “There is a band of Romanians who wait like me and they are mean. We need to be discreet”, he said. For a year now, there have been more of these groups who compete for food with individuals such as Eugene. I arrived with my camera in clear sight. Glances said everything – I was not welcome here. I remained to the side and after an hour of waiting the trash containers arrived from a hangar. Eugene was slow to move and the Romanians jumped on the container with a vengeance. Eugene did his best to harvest food from the fray. I had the impression that I was watching wild cats or sharks during feeding time.
In face of the excitement of the scene, I realized that I had become invisible to those rummaging for food. I circled around the trash containers without a problem. I was bumped into accidentally a bit, and received some direct insults. Quickly Eugene indicated that there was nothing left to salvage. My working by his side in the scrum built trust between us. He got into his car to return home and I followed. I asked if I could enter his apartment, which he refused categorically. I told him that I would see him again tomorrow.
I saw Eugene for several days and photographed him as he sorted through the trash from neighborhood supermarkets with one idea in mind: to have him invite me to his home and watch him cook a meal from the salvaged food. I was able to persuade Eugene and photographed him in his kitchen, but only his kitchen. “It’s such a mess in the rest of my apartment.” I said to myself, “He’ll change his mind”, but the next day he invited me to his place where a dark, narrow hallway led to a small kitchen.
Eugene proudly opened his fridge to display his findings. It was stocked with food, some of which I recognized from following him the last several days. He took out the box of eggs and showed me his recipe for an omelette. We spoke for a moment, then he asked me to leave. Eugene wanted his privacy back.
With my reporting reaching its end, I asked Eugene what would please him. “A photo of myself” he replied. “What kind of photo?” I asked. “Well, a photo of me looking for food in the trash. That will be a good souvenir for when I am older.” The next day I presented him with four photos. He was excited and showed them off to his fellow “trash binners”. He spoke to me with the familiar French form “Tu” and we made a final round of supermarkets looking for food.
It was at this time that I learned that he waits until dark to unload his bags of food from the trunk of his car so as not to be seen by his neighbors. Eugene maintains his pride, but is practical because with only 1000 euros ($1,300) he has to be inventive to get by. He confessed that during all these days we had spent together he thought that I was a member of the police. With his savings from gathering food he hopes to leave one day – in the direction of Las Vegas.