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[Photography] Interview with Isabella Suell

by AM Larks

In honor of this year’s International Coastal Cleanup day (September 17), The Wave is featuring photography works from Isabella Suell.

[KELP JOURNAL] The photo above, One is a Million, is so striking as it encompasses our problem with single use plastics and its impact on the environment by drawing our focus to the empty plastic bottle on the ground instead of beautiful leaves. What motivated you to begin using your art for environmental activism?

[ISABELLA SUELL] I’ve grown up hearing two key phrases from my mother, “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “Don’t be a litterbug.” As a kid I would always pick up trash from the parking lot on my way to the store, and those kinds of habits have stayed with me into adulthood. When the flooding happened in my neighborhood, I couldn’t help but notice the trash in our flooded yards and ditches. It’s frustrating how trash is so easily discarded on the side of the road and into other’s lives as “someone else’s problem,” but also how the market serves everything in inorganic containers that cannot break down and give back to the earth once discarded. Single use plastic has become so common we forget to notice it, and it was all the harder to ignore in that moment because of the organic material surrounding it. It didn’t belong there. And the flooding itself is a result of this carelessness being nurtured by consumerism and micro plastics.

[KJ] Drink containers seem to be a big part of our litter problem, as seen in Backyards above, where there appears to be a flooded path lined with various empty plastic drink containers like fast food drink cups, sports drink containers, and soda bottles. Can you talk about the circumstances that led to this photograph?

[IS] The neighborhood these images were taken in is what sociologists consider a “food desert,” which are “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance,” as is described by the Food Empowerment Project. Areas like this are often afflicted with poverty, obesity, and other such concerning ailments. This is my neighborhood. The area I live in allows access to a soccer field, elementary school, and four churches; and as a result of these domestic attractions the neighborhood has unusually high traffic and more litter than the residents can keep pace to clean up. This, alongside the lacking resources for sanitation, has caused the sewer systems of this flood-risk neighborhood to get dangerously backed up with trash such as the bottles photographed during a flood in 2020.

[KJ] As we know from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, approximately “80 percent of plastic in the ocean is estimated to come from land-based sources…” (National Geographic) and plastic bottles are not the only sources of single use plastics. Plastic bags, such as those used for groceries, are another big contributor to the litter and marine debris problem. I am curious why you entitled your photograph The Average American Shopping Cart. Is America the biggest contributor to the plastic problem?

[IS] In the U.S. it is normal for the store clerk to bag any item, be it a pack of gum or a carton of milk, inside a cheaply made and carelessly disposed of plastic bag with the store logo along the side. With the increase in delivery stemming from necessity during the lockdowns of Covid19, a reliance on delivery and the plastic/Styrofoam containers the food is delivered in has developed.

[KJ] It can seem overwhelming as an individual to combat such a large problem. Do you have any advice for readers looking to make a change? What can each person do to make an impact?

[IS] Think about yourself, your actions, how to help a larger movement within your abilities. As a society, I don’t believe we should blame any one individual for pollution, it’s an “everyone problem” and we need all hands on deck to do the small things, so as to build up towards big results. I know it can get frustrating to constantly see belittling comments online or get angry with large companies that require loud voices and big money to get attention. That doesn’t take away the smaller things one can do to contribute to restoring their part of the earth. As a college student a couple things I highly suggest for thrifty green tips would be things such as carpooling, reselling old textbooks as well as thrifting books for class, and most importantly—turning off lights and AC in your dorm when you don’t need it or leave the room. Small acts like this can contribute to lessening pollution as much as it can contribute to worsening it if no action is taken. It’s like an ant hill, sure it looks like there are only one or two ants helping to build the mound on the outside, but we can look inside and find that it takes collaboration from a lot of individuals to achieve a large and unified result. Keep up your individual work and share your advice shamelessly!

Click on each image to enlarge

Isabella Suell is a college student. Her work represents the casual occurrence of harmful plastics in everyday life and how our world has begun overlooking overuse and lazy discarding of "trash." Other works of hers can be found in magazines such as The Stylus, The Good Life Review, and In Parenthesis.


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