As an immigrant to and lover of Iceland, I take a lot of photos. I push delete a lot as well. I delete my way through photos of well-loved, beautiful landscapes. I delete people I love. I delete strangers. I delete family pets. I delete flora. I delete endangered species. I delete power lines. I delete duplication. I delete imperfection. After much deletion, I securely empty my trash to free space for more photos, for future deletions.
‘Delete’ is one of the few words present on any English-language keyboard. We delete to make space, to de-clutter. When digitally sorting photographs, we send to the trash that which is no longer of use to us, or the photo that wasn’t good enough. Not only might we interact in a second-nature, largely unthinking way with waste disposal within homes, commons, and work spaces, we may have also become trained to see through the words which confront, train, and direct us everyday: return, control, shift, command, delete.
My project Rusl, as a concrete action, intends to trouble that abstract, everyday deletion.
The Icelandic word for trash is rusl.
I chose to work with an Icelandic word—with rusl—because I am photographing Icelandic landscapes, and the words of this country have been the words most long used to view this country. Each photograph in the Rusl series is overlaid with a semi-transparent RUSL, offering juxtaposition between image and word. How is either a lens? How do they cover or obscure one another? How do we look beyond one, as we look beyond delete, shift, command, enter? How could we see ourselves reflected in the word?
In spring 2013, I walked a gravel road near a Grímsnes summerhouse enclave to find a small quarry and the rusl of house construction. At first glance, the site appeared under development. Wood, metal, and slate were discretely stacked. Large mounds of earth lined the road. Even a tephra rock pile—including several notable chunks of red palagonite—felt organized for some unknown human endeavour. Were these poised for transfer to another location? If so, would another site render the earth, wood, metal, slate, and rock useable by humans, less visible to humans, garbage…? In this iteration, how did the materials signify as almost-garbage, as someone-else’s-trash, even as easily shrugged-off and not-my-problem? For someone to have made such orderly piles—surely this material had a human intention beyond this place? What if this was meant as the final resting place for this garbage?
I looked closer. A gate had been left open through the winter—its sign dropped to the ground, dented. All on-site metal had rusted. Pieces of plastic, metal, wood, slate dotted (littered?) the terrain beyond initial sight, beyond intermediary site. Those pieces had begun assimilation with the terrain—pressed into or partly covered by mud and leaf-or-grass litter from last winter season. As I stood there, I realized the materials might rest in interminable pause. There could be intent to use or transfer in the future, but for now this material was either a new introduction to or reconfiguration of the prominent subarctic ecosystem. If garbage is what has been discarded, what has been left behind, what is no longer in circulation by humans, then surely the materials both arranged and strewn around this former construction site would count as garbage.
I grabbed my camera, centered myself above each piece of garbage, and photographed. The first series in Rusl, Sumarbústaður / Summerhouse, contained thirty specimens.
After the construction site, I visited a rural area in Iceland and donned my rusl lens. At Mýrar á Seljum, I crossed an exposed mud flat at low tide, when the space was temporarily drained of ocean, to reach an uninhabited island. Unusual for Iceland as a volcanic hotspot rich with black sand, the island was ringed with blond sand carried north by the gulf stream. Three sea eagles circled overhead. I look up at them looking down, and then I followed their gazes to the ground. What could be rusl here?
The island was covered with what the ocean dumped onto and the weather dragged over it. Net buoys, shipwreck wood, rope, plastic containers. I looked closer. Swan death, unidentified bones. The Atlantic pulled green and red seaweed onto the shore, deposited it. I photographed bodies and parts of crabs, freshly dismantled by gulls during tidal recession. Had the ocean discarded seaweed, as the birds left their food wrappers, as some human had thrown away the pink lighter?
Later, I traveled to Jökulsárlón. One of the vaunted tourist destinations of Iceland, the glacial lagoon bobs with icebergs drifting from the largest ice cap in Europe to melt in the North Atlantic or on the nearby black-sand beach. Breathtaking. Beautiful. It is one of the most photographed sites in Iceland.
By the lagoon, I audio-recorded the interplay of icebergs, arctic terns, traffic sounds, and tourists. My impulse with field recordings is often to seek soundscapes devoid of human sounds; when they do enter, I tend to use them as a signal to end the recorded track. I seek non-human soundscapes, in part, because it is a challenge to separate from the constancy of human-produced sounds (including from my own body).
At Jökulsárlón, I itched with annoyance because I craved hearing the icebergs’ voices but was gifted, instead, rare creaks intercut with airplanes and cars and foreign human languages. Human-produced sounds: automatic deletions post-recording. The trash of ‘purist’ field recording. Then I smiled to myself. Rusl. I pushed record again, embracing all aspects of the soundscape. My audio centered what might be construed as trash, just as with the Rusl photographs.
Then my camera and I took a rusl stroll. Cigarette butts, clothing, crab claws. Rusted metal, sun-bleached plastic, deconstructed bird carcass. Ice. As the lagoon emptied into the Atlantic, the black-sand shore littered with a variety of glacial detritus—from hut-sized icebergs all the way to sweaty, disintegrating ice cubes. At some point in the meditation of photographing cube after cube of ice, everything in the camera frame became rusl. I thought about my relationship with water as the Atlantic dragged ice on and off the shore. Climate change, water shortage, water cleanliness, glacial retreat, desertification. I thought about disposable culture, about a culture of discard. Control, alt(er), delete. But what is deleted isn’t actually ever deleted; instead, it transforms. My notion of melting glaciers began to transform.
What entities have the power to discard, to create trash? What they leave behind—how is this trash?
If I perceive non-human entities as contributing trash to ecosystems, how might this shift my own speciesist garbage shame?
How do I raise my own awareness of what I throw away by viewing what other entities discard?
How do I re-evaluate the impact of my garbage when witnessing it in unexpected places such as an uninhabited island or a glacial lagoon?
I witness the re-circulation of human-generated and non-human-created trash into different ecosystems. These components may identify as trash to some, as tool or material or culture or home to others. When I throw something away next, will I think? When I push delete, how will I see?