The music used in this video is a compilation of songs, “Ganyantri Mantra” by Deva Premal, and “Don’t Forget” by Manu Delago (featuring Ellie Fagg, Gregor Riddell and Tom Norris from London Symphony Orchestra)

The Dignity Amidst the Rubbish Project

The art and heart of the “Dignity Amidst the Rubbish Project” is that it’s rooted in collaboration, using the photo book, Dignity Amidst the Rubbish: Hour-by-Hour With a Burmese Migrant Community in Thailand, for cultivating humanitarian support, addressing global issues, while also taking a moment to observe and reflect upon the beauty of life.

While documenting and holistically reflecting upon the societal cohesion of a community of Burmese refugees living at a rubbish dump located on the Thai-Burma border, we are addressing global issues related to the larger condition of humankind and in relation to the socioeconomic, environmental, and human rights issues related with modern economic development and the global market system.

The candle for this project was lit in 2010 after I had traveled to Mae Sot, Thailand — the border town that feeds trash to this rubbish dump. This is where I met Burmese monk, Ashin Sopaka. He took me to meet the community, and I began a several-year process of contemplating their daily life.

I began intermittently accumulated a series of what others apparently deem moving, troubling, fascinating, and beautiful images — of the community, their life, their overall situation, and how they’ve sociologically responded to their plight in a way that may reveal insight into aspects of human daily behavior to which we all can relate.

While the Dignity Amidst the Rubbish Project does focus on Burmese migrants, its contextual scope is global and can be applied to anybody and everybody rendered marginalized and living with dignity amidst the world’s societal rubbish. Proceeds will likewise be used solely to support marginalized human populations.

The Mae Sot Rubbish Dump Community

Many people inside Burma are unable to earn sufficient income to meet the basic needs for their survival, so they flee. Hundreds of thousands of them have left their homeland in the hope of better opportunities in Thailand.

Once in Thailand, they face many difficulties connecting with social organizations. They fear that doing so may lead to possible reprisals for family members back home by drawing the attention of local authorities. This makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Many have no choice but to live in dangerous, adverse, conditions such as those at the Mae Sot rubbish dump.

The first three families came to live and work on this dump site in 1990. About 400 people are living there as of November 2014. Over 200 of them are under 18 years old. Seemingly abandoned and forgotten by any larger society, they ironically have few alternatives to scavenging for recyclable items and selling them for a pittance to local merchants.

Living conditions there are bleak, to say the least. Negligible access to basic needs such as running water, healthy food, and medical facilities, as well as the constant inhalation of toxic fumes, results in widespread illnesses and occasional deaths. Homes constructed of bamboo, cardboard, and the encompassing trash are rent free. However, the real price is disease, respiratory problems, harassment from authorities, and disdain from members of the larger community. Despite the harshness of their situation the people on this rubbish dump somehow manage to live each day with courage and dignity.

No photograph can reveal the full depth of what is occurring daily at this rubbish dump. The environmental conditions of the community living there are deplorable; yet, they literally sing aloud while making use of the inherent power of citizen cohesion and cling to the margins of life. The aim of the Dignity Amidst the Rubbish book project is to likewise show their lifestyle and also to reflect beyond the mechanics of what they are doing and take a closer look at their hearts, who they really are — regardless of living conditions.

A key moment of inspiration came for me while witnessing this community laugh and sing together while digging for recyclable in the mountain of trash! They live in the bowels of human society, after it has digested its seemingly endless need for material goods. Still, although they are faced with major health problems, harassment from the local authorities, and unstable living conditions, community members still have each other for support and retain the will to live.

This community, stripped to the core of its humanity, still laughs and sings amidst its survival. They have provided me a reference to the kind of person I want to be — patient, resilient, strong, and grateful for what I do have. They have much to teach all of us.

They deserve a voice.

The Dignity Amidst the Rubbish Book

Both disturbed and inspired by what I had witnessed at the Mae Sot Rubbish dump, I wanted to create something artistic related to global issues — civic journalism work that’s not too focused on the negativity surrounding poverty and strife.

I felt called to somehow illustrate the fact that while some people live comfortably, others are living another life that may not be as pleasant; we should consider the other’s lives as well. I likewise promised the Mae Sot rubbish dump community that I would do something to provide support, and whatever I created would be dedicated to them and also to all people who are ensnared in the margins of the modern global market system.

It became obvious to me that this community’s story needed to be told hour-by-hour. Because as we, those living outside of this dumpsite, are going about our daily routines, this community is living and doing the same — there.

This is a 44-page CROSS-SECTION PREVIEW of the 134-page Dignity Amidst the Rubbish book.

Dignity Amidst the Rubbish: Hour-by-Hour With a Burmese Migrant Community in Thailand is a 132-page photo book that takes a close look into the daily lives of a refugee community from Burma living on a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Mae Sot, Thailand, near the Burma border. Photographs, prose, and the translated voices of this community provide an hour-by-hour glimpse into the situations of these individuals and their families. There is a section included intended as a funding mechanism to support the community included in the book.

This work focuses not on the deplorable conditions in which they live, but is rather a reflection on this community’s cohesion amid an environment of poverty and strife. Dignity Amidst the Rubbish, at its core, likewise addresses global issues related to the larger condition of humankind at this moment in time and in relation to modern economic development and the global market system.

Dignity Amidst the Rubbish additionally addresses global issues related to the larger condition of humankind at this moment in time and in relation to modern economic development and the global market system. Both documenting and reflecting upon this community, this project addresses sociopolitical issues, human rights, the natural environment, as well as the associated socio-psychological problems resulting from strife.

Civic Journalism: Building Social Capital  

What I am hoping to accomplish with this body of work is to further cultivate awareness about and dignity for the Mae Sot rubbish dump community, the issues overall, as well as illuminate the beauty of life and the inherent goodness of human beings.

There exists 1,200 print copies, as well as a digital version, of the Dignity Amidst the Rubbish book, which are being distributed in various countries. This book is being offered as a gift in exchange for a donation, which is resulting in both indirect and direct benefit to the Burmese community included in the book.

The Dignity Funding Mechanism

What Can I Do?

Partner in supporting this Burmese community.
The Dignity Funding Mechanism