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Fruit tree near septic tank. Glove-box fishing hole with baby otter inside. Dead ducks in storm sewer. Glove-box with a decomposing baby alligator. Glove-box with a decomposing raccoon on the floor. Boxcar turned into an art piece.
For six days, photographer Joshua Ferris plunged into the underbelly of New York. Accompanied by friends and a hamster named Fruitcake, Ferris filmed around the city’s trash, studying the interplay of humanity and decay. He found, for example, that society’s decay wasn’t restricted to the landfill. He saw churches, ballfields, middle schools and one-room homes. All with their own little stories to tell.
As much as I thought about what I was doing, I couldn’t help but think about how much I love New York City in a literal sense: its buildings, the songs that get stuck in your head, the way you know what a leaf looks like just by feeling the faint breeze, how hot it is in the summer and how cold it is in the winter.
Ferris’ book, called Goleman, is less about New York City and more about what humans want, and what can happen when you give them what they want.
Ferris decided to join a pilgrimage to visit every unclaimed body at the Atlantic Yards landfill in East New York, Brooklyn. The landfill, said to be the largest in the nation, holds, according to its website, three tons of refuse for every person in the United States. The Atlantic Yards site is an assembly of industrial buildings, intended to be the home of a high-end residential development. Before construction began, there was an organic farm owned by the R&,B singer John Legend.
“I decided to shoot the book in a way that meant asking questions about a lot of different kinds of neighborhoods,” Ferris told me in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he now lives.
There’s been talk for years about legalizing human composting in New York. The idea is that people — it’s not just corpses — can be turned into mulch and fertilizers that will enrich the earth. We already have an estimated 1,100 citywide composting sites, says Ferris.
Ferris thinks it makes more sense to have a giant landfill. But then he got to think about what this decision means for the trash-loving New Yorkers.
“Just like we treat food as sustenance, we use things as resources and then dispose of them, so do we treat dead things,” Ferris says. “I started to wonder how this system works and how people interact with it. I started thinking about ways people deal with their bodies.”
Ferris’ film captures the morbid, yet strangely beautiful, way that New Yorkers live with their detritus. He watched as someone urinated in a parking lot. A man carefully pinched off the tip of his nose with a plastic straw. As a young girl took off her shoes to have her feet bathed in a bowl of water, her older sister told her not to fall in. A man rode a bike with a pig’s head on his handlebars. A dog walked on its hind legs to take a leak. A woman was sent out on a walk with a poop-smeared gunny sack. People drank out of their water bottles near a decomposed rat. Ferris even met a group of men with an old sound system and a generator who would blast “Jingle Bells” to drown out the city.
“Goleman” is an acronym for “growth, learning, self-knowledge,” the book’s description goes. The book also tells the story of Ferris and his would-be companion, Fruitcake, who was named after a song by OMD. The pair met and befriended some people on a similar vision quest. But they discovered there’s not much conversation about suicide or death, no wonder the world is in such a sad place.
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