I don’t know if you have ever noticed of the monkey-business bin men get up to. They work in the twilight hours when there ain’t many folks around. Rooting around in bags of used nappies, then scampering back to base before sunrise. I happen to know that bin men regard themselves as being a breed somewhere between vampires and a tramps.*
It must be an intensely antisocial yet highly social job. Imagine how popular you would be if you turned up in a caff / in bed/ at the opera after work at 8 in the morning smelling of fish poo and radishes? However, the teams of refuse-collectors always seem to be fairly tightly knit (I once saw one jokingly hold a razor blade he had just found to his mate’s eye then cut off some of his hair with it- ahh, the japes!).
Why do they do it?
The begged question.
There are the extras I suppose. They turn quite a bit of a side business by doing trade collections from scurrilous builders. You know how they will never take away that old fridge / tv / coffin that has been lying in your front garden for months? Next time they come round, pull on your pants (and bra) and run outside into the brisk morning air, and bribe them with a fiver. They will happily provide you with a bespoke waste solution. They probably make more by leasing the council’s civic facilities than by their regular pay. It all sort of balances out when you think about it.
Then there is the foraging. They love spending hours sifting through your rubbish like it is an episode of Bargain Hunt, looking for a nice figurine / desk set / wedding present. Check out these furtive snaps I took of the binmen, who jackpotted on our neighbours’ pile of about a dozen bin-bags.
They really relished it. First the clear the rubbish from the tray of the lorry, then they tear open the bags. They proceed to rifle through the stinking booty, with priority pickings ordained via a pecking order. This chap made a nice little pile of gayly coloured boxes, which he then stuffed into a recycling bag (fittingly). He then somewhat coarsely advise his colleagues that they were not to copulate with his stuff on pain of death.
They spent a good fifteen minutes outside this one house. It was like they had found a fresh roll of lottery scratch cards in there. Now I could make out some of the tat they were rescuing from landfill. I cannot believe that anyone could find any financial value in any of it. But I reckon it is not about money. It is about the fun of hunter-gathering. Just like young boys hunting for conkers. Or the incontinent rush for bargains at a car boot sale.
It is funny how the hunter-gatherer habit comes back so naturally to us. Our ancestors, when gathering probably used every drop of daylight walking along, staring at the ground, discerning grass from edible leaves, poisonous berries from fruit. Every time they found something good to eat, they would have felt that that little pang of accomplishment, just like when a schoolboy finds a big shiny conker in the grass.
I think this is also the feeling a photographer gets when he is out doing is thing. Whenever you know you have found a good composition, an interesting subject or the like, you get that tiny dose of endorphins. You carry on walking and hunt for more. It is totally engrossing. Your eyes start becoming sensitive to composition and colour, just like when you are searching for blackberries or mushrooms, your eyes become tuned to the shape and colour of those fruits. You get your eye in.
I first became aware of this parallel in Burnham Beeches, a forest west of London. I like to go there hunting for porcini mushrooms. But this time I had my camera, and I became addicted to taking photographs of the shapes and compositions thrown up by the black trees against the autumn sky (not the most interesting pics, I know, but I weirdly find them fascinating).
Now this is not the first time I have taken photographs obsessively. I do that more often than sitting on things. But it was because of the association with mushroom picking that I noticed feeling a similar sense of gathering-pleasure. As though I was looking for bereft cutlery / door furniture / children’s toys in a pile of rubbish.
*this is clearly a lie