“There’s that tension between what is art and what is garbage which can hopefully be translated into wanting to take care of our planet.” Those are the words of Fine Art Photographer Jennifer Bucheit. She explores that tension in her photography series “Again & Again: A Reflection on Consumer Culture.”
Bucheit got her inspiration for her most recent project from simply looking at her family’s consumption of single-use paper products. She watched the boxes pile up and was shocked at how much waste one family of four can generate. That piqued her interest to explore what was happening to all that refuse. She discovered that while Americans are the largest paper consumers, many don’t recycle. In offices and schools (two of the biggest consumers of paper) 50% of paper is used once, then discarded. Paper, cardboard, paper cups, etc., make up the largest portion of solid waste in landfills and, even though those products are biodegradable, they emit CO2 as they degrade. Bucheit decided to use photography to draw attention to paper waste on a personal level without pointing any fingers. She collected easily identifiable packaging, such as Cheerios boxes and Priority Mail envelopes. Bucheit readily admits that she hadn’t given much consideration in the past as to just how much paper she and her family were going through; she hopes her art will inspire people to reflect on their own paper usage. “With paper, it’s easy to make changes in your own life; I can bring my own bag to the grocery store or use my own coffee mug. If we all did just that much it would make a big difference, something tangible,” she says.
One of the reasons Bucheit chose to focus on paper waste is due to its relationship to the photographic medium, as most photos are printed on paper. Another reason was geographical; Jennifer lives in Wisconsin, which has the highest concentration of pulp and paper mills in the world. The Lower Fox River empties into Green Bay and had been contaminated for decades, as many of those paper manufacturers released polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the waterway before restrictions of PCB use, manufacturing, and disposal began in the 1970s. PCBs pose health hazards to people, fish, and wildlife because they do not degrade naturally. Instead, they build up in the environment and bioaccumulate to higher concentrations through the food chain. An initial emergency response and removal was conducted in 1999 and 2000, when 80,000 cubic meters of PCB-contaminated sediment was dredged, removing 3400 pounds of PCBs. 2019 marks the 16thyear of the current PCB cleanup project, led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). Dredging is taking place 24 hours a day at least five days a week with the goal of removing an additional 240,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment. Bucheit says her home state is a perfect example of how human consumption and waste affects wildlife, people, and the land: the EPA has implemented zoning restrictions to prevent land uses surrounding the river, such as residential; children have suffered developmental delays; others have developed cancer; and even today, the WDNR has established consumption guidelines for fish taken from the Lower Fox River and Green Bay due to the accumulation of PCBs in their fatty tissues.
To make these artistic images, Bucheit collects paper packaging, several of the same type. “I bring them into the studio to take photographs of the individual pieces of packaging, much like a still life, with different angles and perspectives. Each image is used in a digital montage to create abstract collages,” the artist says. To complete her works, the images are then printed on the interior side of the deconstructed packaging itself. “Images of paper waste printed onto paper waste,” she says. Her goal is to make the images visually appealing and engaging so that people want to look at them and try to figure out what they are. Therein lies the challenge: making waste into beautiful works of art. “Then, I’m hoping that people get curious and want to see the bigger picture. What do I value? And what can I do?”
According to Bucheit, a lot of artists are really trying to reflect, make a statement, and change habits. She cites photographic artist Chris Jordan as one of her personal inspirations. “He took heartbreaking photographs of the skeletons of birds on Midway Island – they are full of plastics.” She admires the way Jordan has put himself out there. “He helped me feel like my work was justified. And urgent.”
Bucheit has recently learned “Again & Again” will be on display as part of the Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from October, 2019 through February, 2020. To learn more about the artist, visit jenniferbucheit.com.