Henrik Malmström – Garbage Systems

Review by Wayne Swanson

This photobook is complete garbage. Garbage containers, garbage pickers, garbage. Even the front and back covers are garbage — recycled cardboard. Why garbage?

Garbage is much more than just what we throw away. It’s a web of social, cultural, political, and economic considerations. The main interest of Henrik Malmström, a Finnish photographer who has spent several years in Buenos Aires, is the underground economy made up of people who scour trash containers in search of material they can sell to recycling facilities. He takes us into their workplace — the alleys and streets of Buenos Aires at night. 

Night is central to the book’s aesthetic. Glossy black pages greet the viewer. Turn the pages, and details emerge from the darkness. Edges of some sort of containers. Scratched and dented metal surfaces. Then the first of several text spreads sprinkled throughout the book. Like the garbage that pickers sift through, the text looks like it came from the recycle bin — it’s presented in a random collection of fonts.

Then it’s back into the garbage containers. Objects begin to appear, propping up the lids of the containers — a tree limb, a flag, a toilet seat, a computer keyboard, a child’s painting and more. Then we see an arm and eventually the torsos of the workers. Then it’s back into darkness.

The text by Sergio Tonkonoff, a researcher at the University of Buenos Aires, explains that these trash collectors are like the dumpster divers found in cities around they world, but they have earned a certain legitimacy in Buenos Aires. Originally known as cirujas (garbage scavengers), they became known by the less pejorative name of cartoneros (waste pickers). Some have even organized in cooperatives that work with governments and other organization. Now the preferred term is “urban reclaimers.” The distinction is the recognition that “this is a job as worthy as any other, although it’s not like any other job. It entails a social and environmental differential value, it serves as a direct contribution to the improvement of urban living conditions, from which everyone profits.”

Tonkonoff’s treatise focuses on legitimizing the role of these urban reclaimers in society, but Malmström’s images are more metaphorical. They present an abstracted view of the containers, divorced from the reality of the stuff found inside. The objects are presented as props to hold up the lids so reclaimers can look inside. Some of these objects are bounty with recyclable value. Others are the detritus of daily life, things that once had functional or emotional value to their owners but now are unwanted or unneeded.

Malmström’s pristine images turn it all into pure garbage — a view that asks us to contemplate the fate of objects after they have been deemed useless, as well as the role of those for whom garbage represents a livelihood.


Garbage Systems, Henrik Malmström

Photographer: Henrik Malmström, born Bangkok, Thailand, resides Buenos Aires, Argentina

Publisher: Editorial SED (Buenos Aires, Argentina, copyright 2019)

Essay: Sergio Tonkonoff

Text: Spanish, English

Recycled cardboard hardcover with silkscreen printing, exposed binding with sewn signatures, four-color lithography, 64 color images, 128 pages, 6 x 8.5 inches, printed in Buenos Aires

Photobook designers: Henrik Malmström, Martín Bollati and Ricardo Baez


Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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