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Landfill soliloquy

Gina Dabrowski, an instructional designer at St. Catherine University, has a knack for capturing life at our landfills.
Gina Dabrowski, an instructional designer at St. Catherine University, has a knack for capturing life at our landfills.
Photo by Kris Drake

Photographer Gina Dabrowski trains her eye on the very things most of us don't want to look at. Her chief focus is landfills. Garbage exploding from boxes and plastic bags. Rubber boots, articles of clothing and other unidentifiable bits and pieces erupting out of the ground. Immense cubic bales made of pressed aluminum cans.

“I’m interested in the people who use landfills and dumps, and in the people who work there,” says Dabroski, an instructional designer in St. Catherine University’s McGlynn Computing and Technology Center. “I think of myself as something of a documentary photographer, because I like cataloguing things.”

Dabrowski’s photography has been recognized statewide, most recently in 2010 when she was honored with a prestigious McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photography, her second such award. In 2000, she received a McKnight fellowship; in 2005, a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant; and in 2010, a Minnesota State Arts Board Initiative Grant.

At St. Kate’s, Dabrowski helps faculty members incorporate technology into their teaching through podcasting, lecture capture, and video and audio recording. Although her workdays are spent on the University’s scenic St. Paul campus, she passes her evenings and weekends collecting images at landfills and recycling stations that have granted her permission to do this.

Spending time around sites filled with the things people discard takes Dabrowski back to her childhood in the 1970s, when she would often accompany her father to dumps and scrap yards.

“He used to deal in scrap metal,” she explains, “and I remember him pulling out copper or aluminum to make additional money for the family. The people who work in scrap yards need their jobs, and I feel very strongly about showing respect for people, the work they do and the space they work in.”

A history of strong women

Dabrowski, who has master’s degrees from the University of Rochester in New York, and the California Institute of Arts in Valencia, comes from “a long line of powerful women” who raised families and had fulltime jobs.

Dabrowski’s grandmother, a single mother in the 1930s and ’40s, worked fulltime at the Twin Cities Arsenal. Her own mother was a clerk who worked her way up to bank officer. Dabrowski strives to bring that focused commitment to her photography.

“That kind of work ethic is just kind of bred into my family,” she says.

Dabrowski believes that everyone views the world through a unique set of eyes. With a camera, a photographer has the ability to capture his or her viewpoint, allowing viewers to understand a new perspective, to see a different corner of the world or appreciate places like landfills that most people don’t care to think about.

Through her photographs, Dabrowski encourages her viewers to see garbage in a new or unexpected light. The Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis will host an exhibit of Dabrowski's current work June 11–July 30.

“I once shot on an incredibly snowy day, and all you see in the photo of this big open pit is a trailer surrounded by garbage, all covered with a pristine coat of snow,” she says. “Landfills and scrap yards aren’t beautiful, exactly, but they are part of our visual experience.”

April 19, 2011 by Faith Adams

See also: Arts