Backstory: The Gleaners

Craig Pulsifer depicts man at work in Manila

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Craig Pulsifer/Aurora Photos

In 2008, I traveled to Manila with my family and did volunteer work for Action International. One of the NGO’s members was writing a story on the “Ten Worst Jobs in Manila” for a street publication called The Jeepney, which focuses on raising awareness for social issues in the Philippines. He asked me to shoot for the story.

One of those jobs was trash scavenging, a huge industry—these guys get a license to work on trash piles, where they hunt for items such as plastic bags and copper wires. They work at night, so arriving on location is spooky. The checkpoints were empty, and we found these two, who let us set up and photograph.

It was pitch-black, and the only light was from the security entrance and the low-watt tungsten headlamps of the two scavengers. I had only a single flash, so I had to get up to my knees in trash to set up a tripod. The pile is filled with roaches and centipedes—I could hear the ground moving. We were there for half an hour.

These guys work hard to make a dollar, so we tried not to interrupt them. But afterward we talked, and in a way it changed the story—they loved this work more than their previous jobs in construction. It allowed them to spend more time with their families, and it was closer to their homes.

More importantly, they took a lot of pride in what they do. It takes a special eye to find the valued things in a scavenge pile.

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