Scouring Madrid’s trash for images

November 19, 2013

Street cleaners of Madrid went on strike as a measure to stop the dismissal of 1134 workers, about 20% of the staff. Below three Madrid-based photographers discuss their experience covering the strike.

By Susana Vera

Madrileños express their love for their city with the local saying, “From Madrid to heaven, and in heaven a little window from which to see it.” For 13 days, though, no one in Madrid seemed to be paying much attention to the sky above their heads, it was the ground they were most concerned about.

For almost a fortnight litter overflowed many of the city’s bins, turning pavements into obstacle courses. Pedestrians watched every step they took, fearful that food waste might make them slip and fall. Drivers competed with garbage bags for parking space for their vehicles. For once, the ever-present weather conversation was replaced by rubbish disgust as the city’s number one small talk topic.

The street cleaners’ strike was a dirty business for Madrid’s residents, but many of them were understanding of the workers’ demands. Citizens grew accustomed to the sight of garbage decomposing outside their doorsteps. Some even benefited from it. Scrap dealers and paper collectors were able to sell many of the discarded items they found amid the trash piled up throughout the city. But the fact that many residents would throw any kind of litter on the ground as opposed to the recycling bins destined for that purpose made for bigger mountains of rubbish taking over the public space. Picketers also contributed to enhancing this gloomy picture by spreading garbage around and setting some trash containers on fire. That worried quite a few merchants, who were afraid of the effect such an unpleasant sight would have on tourists and possible customers.

The ones who welcomed the street cleaners’ work stoppage with no reservations, though, were the city’s pets. The strike was paradise on earth for Madrid’s dogs. Each daily walk turned into a treasure hunt for them and a headache for their owners, who couldn’t stop them from scavenging.

The strike ended after union representatives agreed on November 17th to a deal under which no workers would be laid off, but every worker would have to take six weeks without pay each year through 2017. Just a month earlier, on October 17th, Madrid’s Mayor, Ana Botella, had stated during a news conference that the madrileños had gotten used to a high standard of street cleaning and that visitors to Spain’s capital thought of Madrid as a clean city.

By Juan Medina

After 13 days of walking around town and seeing trash accumulating in the streets it’s possible to reflect on it in multiple ways. In the first instance it was a strike by street cleaners not of garbage collection workers, though many residents referred to it as a “garbage collection strike”. Domestic garbage bags piled high every day. In Madrid it is recommended for residents to take out their garbage to the containers at the doors of our houses by late afternoon so that they do not stay there long before collection. For a few days I was taking pictures near my house in the center of Madrid, a place full of all kinds of rubbish including cardboard, plastic, bottles, wood and domestic garbage bags, when a man suddenly arrived and said “This is a shame! So much trash!” while throwing a mountain of his own rubbish onto the pile of garbage.

Three big containers were very close by in which the residents could deposit their garbage but some people chose to just leave their rubbish outside the containers, I do not know the reason. In the building where I live it is not unusual to find garbage bags at the door in the morning beside the streetlights. Many times I have seen posters in the elevator that read “take out the garbage during the stipulated time and within containers, please”. It happens every year but I get the impression that the strike was an occasion for some people for their practices to go unnoticed.

By Sergio Perez

The strike was a nice challenge to cover, not because of the difficulty of finding good pictures but it tested your knowledge of the city where you live, your power of persuasion to let you climb into neighbors’ homes to take pictures from their balconies and sometimes, and with a touch of good luck.

The best way to cover this type of event was to go everywhere. Take long walks, most of the time through neighborhoods and tourist center of the city. Throughout the strike period we witnessed how the accumulating trash narrowed the sidewalks. On your next visit, the same corner appeared cleaner than the day before but the next day was again full of garbage.

One of the best things was the teamwork and coordination of the pictures team as we fanned out to comb through various areas in search for strong garbage pictures. I think our coverage looked very good overall with a balanced combination of angles, light, artistic and interesting pictures.

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