When Ryan Struck moved to Rockaway in Queens, New York City three years ago, the dirty beaches immediately caught his attention. Growing up going to the beaches of New Jersey and having fostered a deep connection to the ocean as a surf photographer, this was a significant departure from the picturesque seaside towns he was used to. Compelled by all emotions brought by the sight of litter, overflowing garbage bins, and dumpster diving seagulls, he turned to what he naturally does when faced with something striking or different: taking photos. Without realizing it, he shot what would later be the Rockaway’s Trash series.
In this personal series, Struck pulls us away from the stunning seaside vistas, surfing scenes, and dreamy summer vibes that we typically see in his work. He instead brings to our attention the stark reality that happens in and out of coastlines across the globe: the trash situation. Hence, the iconic yellow trash bins scattered across Rockaway’s beaches became the unlikely star of this body of work, and the message it strives to get across.
We recently asked Struck to make a deep dive with us on his motivations, inspirations, and aspirations for this series. The resulting interview below leads us to some interesting insights on how creative minds translate thoughts and emotions into visual communication.
Phoblographer: Rockaway’s Trash seems more visually austere or straightforward compared to your other personal works. Can you tell us more about what sparked the idea for this project?
Ryan Struck: When I first moved to Rockaway three summers ago, I was struck by how dirty the beaches were. I’m originally from New Jersey and grew up going to the beach during all seasons, I’ve always loved the sand and have always felt connected to the ocean. My career in surf photography took me to beautiful beaches around the world, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of pretty seaside towns. I was appalled at what I saw in right here in Queens. Litter everywhere, overflowing garbage bins, and seagulls rummaging through all of the chaos. Naturally, I did what I always do when I see something new, interesting, or different: photograph it. I didn’t know this series would become a project until halfway through my first summer here, it started organically.
Phoblographer: The yellow trash bin appears like a noticeable mainstay of the beach, but as a visual element, what did they come to represent to you as you were shooting for this project?
Struck: Yup, they indeed are iconic here in Rockaway. The week before Memorial Day, you can see NYC Parks Service hauling the bins onto the beach, the sandgroomer cleaning the beaches, and a bit more bustle surrounding the area next to the ocean. I’d say the trash bins became an anchor for me at the beach. They always captured my attention, whether I was beachcombing with my morning coffee or enjoying the blazing summer sun with friends. Rockaway is known for many things, and what comes out of someone’s mouth depends on who you ask. I mostly hang at the beach, I’ll shoot a little surfing when there’s waves or happenings around town just for fun, but the yellow trash bins are universal. Anyone who comes for a dip in the ocean, or lays their towel out sees them. You can’t miss that bright yellow metal laced can against the off white sand, and blue white-capped ocean.
Phoblographer: What messages were you keen on translating into each of the photos and the series as a whole?
Struck: I wanted to put a spotlight on trash at the beach. I have tons of photos of these trash bins overflowing with rubbish. Broken surfboards, cracked beach chairs, single-use plastics, organic waste. I have photos of birds swarming the trash. Golden hour shots of the overstuffed yellow bins with throngs of beachgoers in the background. And then I have these images. Single cans, empty and alone as they lie. I often patrolled the beach after rainstorms, or in pretty light and make these photographs. I came to be more interested in showing where we put our garbage than literally showing it. I already had a viscerally unpleasant feeling seeing all the trash on the beach, as most humans would, so I didn’t need to show that. How could I photograph these bins which have piqued my interest in such a way that also fulfilled my desire to capture pleasing aesthetics? If these images cause viewers to pause and think, then I feel like I’ve succeeded.
Phoblographer: What were the main challenges that you encountered while conceptualizing and/or shooting this series?
Struck: The biggest challenge was editing images. The best part of photography is shooting, allowing the creative flow to happen, being in the moment. Compiling a series is challenging for me because often times I’m shooting lots of the things I see without a specific purpose. Daily life, events, friends. I often experience a large chunk of my world through my camera. It is then once I’ve been photographing for a while did I understand a theme within my own work. I had a bunch of my favorite selects together, and I passed a gallery to friends and asked them to weigh in. It’s super helpful to have more eyeballs and some constructive criticism. I only want to make my work stronger, and I welcome having a helping hand in eliminating images, or sequencing.
Phoblographer: Given the simplicity of the visuals, did you ever feel limited when it comes to making your photos more striking or attention-grabbing? How did you address this?
Struck: They are very simple and straightforward, and that’s exactly what I wanted. The obvious thing to do is shoot all the nasty garbage that overflows out of these bins after a busy weekend or holiday. I don’t want to show the obvious, I felt empowered by showing plain, empty bins. I thought it would make a much more impactful statement than, “Hey look at all this garbage! Yuck!” I don’t want to be on an environmental soapbox, that’s not the point. Let’s look at trash differently; this is my effort to stimulate that conversation.
Phoblographer: We can see that your “visceral feelings for seeing it on the beach” are mainly triggered by your love for the ocean, as you’ve told us about previously. How do you reconcile these feelings with the reality that happens outside of these beach scenes (i.e., the trash always ends up elsewhere)?
Struck: I understand the implications of taking a black or white stance on issues. In much of my life, I aim for flexibility and would like to think I am capable of finding the grey area. I want to weigh all sides, validate all concerns, and try my best to make an informed decision. The reality is that our garbage does wind up elsewhere, we bury it in landfills. That’s insane! I’d be a hypocrite if I said: “Get this garbage off the beach and go bury it in the Earth somewhere else!” Throw away candy wrappers in these bins, and you can bet some of them blow out of the garbage bin and into the ocean. Pointing a finger is never the answer, holding ourselves accountable is a much more effective way of reconciling our differences.
I haven’t eliminated all environmentally harmful practices. I travel on planes, drive an automobile, buy the occasional iced coffee (plastic cup + straw). I am mindful of my decisions, but I also know I am not perfect, and neither is thy neighbor. I do want to see the beaches pretty and clean, the sand is a sanctuary. But so is the entire Earth. Let’s ask ourselves, “How can I help?” When we start trying to solve that individually, we can start to affect change collectively.
Phoblographer: You shared with us that you want viewers of this series to “look, absorb, and come to their own understandings.” Do you think that people who already see these trash bins on a regular basis may already be desensitized to the message?
Struck: Interesting question. What I do know is that this series takes a familiar object and makes it foreign. I want people to think “Wait, why are the bins empty?” or “That sky is so pretty, why is there a trash can there?” Through these photos, I want to reinvigorate our perceptions of these everyday objects, and I want it to land right in the hearts of all 8.5 million New Yorkers.
Phoblographer: If you can travel anywhere in the world to continue or make a variation of this project, where would go you and why?
Struck: I’d spin a globe and throw a dart. Wherever it landed, I’m sure there is a need for a spotlight on the environment. They just discovered plastic at the bottom of Mariana’s Trench. Pristine environments are faded, this is indeed a global issue.