Throw me a little piece of your heart

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WHEN 27-year-old Enrico Fabian fell while standing on a mountain of garbage, peering through his Canon 350D, he found himself neck deep in Ghazipur’s infamous landfill, covered in toxic waste. For a moment he felt consciousness gently slip away as the stench filled his lungs. He pulled himself out using the dangling strap of his camera bag which was lying outside. People were too busy working, rummaging through the garbage to notice him. He walked out unsteadily, till he finally saw two buffaloes being given a bath in a slum, and washed himself there, much to the surprise of the onlookers. “If I hadn’t done that, it would have been very hard to find someone who would allow me to sit inside his auto rickshaw and drop me home,” he smiles. It was another day at work for Enrico Fabian.

Kabariwallahs recycle 1,200 tons of waste and save Delhi Rs 12 lakhs every single day

At first, it’s hard to understand why a young photographer from Germany would want to do a photo feature on India’s waste disposal, of all the exotic things in this country. But, after five minutes of meeting Fabian, you can’t help but feel his frustrations and what he wants to show through his pictures. “I think the world is de-emotionalising,” he says, as he speaks about how people have stopped becoming sensitive to most issues. At the India Habitat Center’s Visual Arts Gallery, New Delhi, Fabien recently exhibited his pictures for the first time, starting 20 March 2008. Titled Tracing Waste — The Kabari’s Contribution to Society,through 40 photographs, Fabian traces a journey one would hardly imagine — from the moment when the kabariwallah’s finger presses the doorbell to collect trash, to how trash gets separated into eight kinds of paper, 12 kinds of plastic, glass, metal, and electronic waste, each packaged and taken away by different levels of waste pickers eking a living out of the city’s garbage. More than 95 percent of Delhi has no formal system of garbage clearance, putting the onus on the shoulders of the unorganised sector’s 1,50,000 kabariwallahs, who recycle 1,200 tons of waste, saving the municipality Rs 12 lakh every single day! Fabian’s exhibition is powerful, not just artistically, but also informatively, forcing one to think.

There are beautiful moments captured in the struggling lives of the waste pickers. A popular favourite of the viewers has been the picture of a young man, just at the break of dawn, his silhouette against the rising sun, walking on a landfill, bending over to grab something he has just spotted, as egrets flutter in the orange sky. “It was overwhelming to watch them sometimes,” Fabian says as he talks about the landfill at Ghazipur where waste pickers would queue up for truckloads of trash to be unloaded each morning, and rush to pick the most valuable items from the stinking avalanche, as if it was a gold mine, with hardly anything thrown away.

FABIAN, EARLIER a systems administrator with Malteser, left Germany in early 2007, on a “vacation” to India. Over the several weeks of his traveling around, his skills as an amateur photographer were honed as he was increasingly drawn to capturing India’s chaotic mood. On his return, he published his first photofeature on the monks of Leh celebrating the Buddhist New Year. Soon after, he joined as an intern with The Hindustan Times. What started as a vacation became the launch pad for a career in photography in India.

When he explored the idea of doing a project on waste pickers, Chintan, an NGO working with ragpickers and the German Embassy, agreed to support him. Over six months, Fabian travelled around Delhi, Ghazipur, Seemapuri, Mustafabad and Bhopura — all areas either inside or bordering the outskirts of Delhi. “I want to do photography that allows me to express my opinion on issues like this, so it makes people think,” he says. The response has, so far, been fantastic. A viewer promised to get schoolchildren from across Delhi to visit, while another wanted to organise a poetry competition using one of the photos to spread public awareness. While the interest might not translate into sales, as the pictures are surely not what most would hang in living rooms, something would still change for all those viewers. Maybe, when they answer their own doors to the morning call of the kabariwallahs, it would be with more heart. Because somewhere, a gap has been bridged.

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