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Sustainability in the Shen

With a plastic bag ban in the making and plastic straws vanishing from cafés around the city, many New Yorkers have convinced themselves that environmental issues are being adequately addressed. While lawmakers are currently considering these issues more than they have in past years, citizens are not exempt from making the necessary changes in their own lives. Climate change is not a problem that only affects a select few—it affects the world, so it requires the world to act.

The new exhibit in the Shen Gallery addresses such issues of sustainability. The walls are filled with a collection of works by Southern California-based photographer Gregg Segal who strives to represent our daily and seemingly small-scale contributions to climate change. Entering the Shen from the Atrium Overlook, viewers are surrounded by 18 vibrant photographs. On the right are pieces from Mr. Segal’s project 7 Days of Garbage, and on the left are works from another project of his, titled Daily Bread.

7 Days of Garbage aims to spark conversation around the excessive amounts of waste we produce. Mr. Segal asked a number of families from the Los Angeles area to collect their trash for a week so that he could photograph them lying in it. The backgrounds of the photos, which range from grass to sand to snow, are intended to convey an unfortunate reality: no environment is safe from the damage of human-caused climate change.

Mr. Segal’s decision to have his participants lie in the trash sprouted from his initial goal of making the issue unavoidable for both viewers and subjects.

“When you’re lying in your own garbage, it’s really hard to ignore it,” said Mr. Segal. “It’s kind of like this is the nest that we’ve made for ourselves.”

Due to the nature of the images and the self-reflection that they provoke, there is a level of complexity to the subjects. While we may at first look at them with outrage, we must consider how our own photographs would look.

“Generally we like to think of our subjects in black and white: either a good person or a bad person,” explained Mr. Segal. “These are trickier, because the subject is both a victim and a perpetrator.”

Viewers are able to identify the subjects that most accurately represent them, while simultaneously appreciating the beauty that the photos offer, despite the heaps of rotten bananas and soiled cartons. Mr. Segal succeeds in both creating vivid, detailed art, and eliciting contemplation.

The other half of photos, from his collection Daily Bread, depict children surrounded by their food of one week. Mr. Segal began the project in 2016, traveling around the world in order to represent a wide variety of diets. He decided to photograph children because eating patterns develop when we are young, and he believes it is imperative to eliminate bad habits as early as possible. Mr. Segal chose backgrounds that he believed best represented the children and their cultures, from fabric with a traditional Arabic pattern to palm and banana leaves. The final products are striking; the range of bright colors is pleasing to the eye and, perhaps unwittingly, viewers are drawn closer by the array of meals.

The goal of this project, similar to 7 Days of Garbage, is to provoke thought surrounding the nutrition we get over the course of one week and the environmental impacts of our food choices. The photographs manage to highlight both the diversity of and common themes within diets, whether healthy or unhealthy; many of those commonalities lie in the processed foods children eat.

“A generation or two ago, when you went to Sicily, a kid there would be eating a very different diet from his counterpart in the U.S.,” said Mr. Segal. “But now, their diets are kind of convergent because so much of it is processed. It’s as if their parents were shopping in the same global superstore.”

In his Think/Speak/Act speech to the Upper School student body on January 18, Mr. Segal spoke about the ways in which this project has prompted him to reconsider the relationship between food and global industrialization.

He suggested that if people were to put in the time and effort to buy fresh produce and cook their own meals, obesity rates would decline substantially. While this may be true in theory, many students believe he failed to consider the economic burden such an endeavor would create. In America, the cheapest food is generally the least healthy, and the healthiest is the most expensive. While he pointed out that nine out of the top ten countries with healthiest diets are in Africa, the poorest continent, he did not address the fact that the food industry in America is quite different because of the lack of natural resources.

Regardless of whether or not his speech resonated with every student, Segal’s photography—the main focus of his work—encourages genuine introspection and forces us to consider the ways in which we contribute to the climate change that we so often claim to be fighting against.

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