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Modern art is rubbish: Meet the student photographer who trained her lens on the junk we throw away

Student Photographer of the Year Juliana Falanghe trained her lens on what we throw away to create strangely beautiful artworks highlighting the plight of the environment

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Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series, made using litter collected on Dublin’s streets

Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series, made using litter collected on Dublin’s streets

Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Using litter collected on Dublin's streets - colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Using litter collected on Dublin's streets - colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Disposable art by Juliana Falanghe

Disposable art by Juliana Falanghe

Disposable art by Juliana Falanghe

Disposable art by Juliana Falanghe

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Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series, made using litter collected on Dublin’s streets

On a mild evening last year, Juliana Falanghe was on her way back from college to her home in Harold's Cross and, just like every other day, the route was littered with rubbish. This time, she decided to do something about it, and started to collect some of the discarded items she came across. She was in her first year of studying photography at Griffith College Dublin, and it struck her that these odds and ends might be useful materials for her end-of-year project. Fairly soon, she had all sorts of junk piling up, from earphones and chargers to cinema tickets and toothbrushes.

"I got almost crazy," says Juliana, 24, who is originally from Sao Paolo, Brazil. "Over here, you have a lot of stuff that is lying around because people just throw it in the street. It really bothered me. You buy, for example, a can, and you drink the Coke or whatever is inside of it, and then you just throw it away, this thing you bought? It just doesn't work in my mind, it's not right, so I decided to do a project about it."

Juliana began to separate her litter collection by colour, and when one of her teachers recommended colour-coordinating the waste with complementary backdrops, she jumped on the suggestion. She carefully arranged and photographed the compositions using a semi-professional Canon camera on loan from college, and the result is Disposable Art, a series of pop art-inspired still-life images: a vivid purple Luas ticket and Snack bar wrapper on top of a sunny yellow sheet; the bold red of a packet of King crisps, an empty carton of McDonald's fries and crushed Coke cans contrasting with the stone-grey beneath. "I wanted to give the impression that you can use those things again," she explains. "I wanted to make it look really like an ad, like you'd see in a magazine."

In July, Juliana was named Student Photographer of the Year at the National Student Media Awards (Smedias). As well as being a striking work in its own right, the theme of her project taps into growing anxiety around climate change and a global movement driven by young people. Fridays for Future, the school strikes started by Greta Thunberg in 2018, are still being held around the world, although the Covid-19 pandemic has understandably slowed momentum.

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Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Colour-coded photographs from Juliana Falanghe’s Disposable Art series

Carbon emissions have dropped dramatically in lockdown, yet scientists warn it is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the climate crisis. In the UK, research by the University of East Anglia found that emissions have rebounded rapidly since the gradual easing of restrictions began there in May.

Juliana observes that tackling global heating requires systemic change, not just individual action, and large corporations must take responsibility for their carbon footprint. She points out that at the current rate of heating, the world is likely to be at least 1.5C warmer between 2030 and 2052, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"It's something that I think is really on people's minds, especially the younger ones, because we will still be young by that time, but how are we going to manage that? It's a really huge problem," says Juliana.

She hopes her photographs will provoke conversation and encourage people to think twice before tossing their rubbish. "I just hope they see the stuff they throw away from another point of view," she says. "I can't control what other people will do, but what I'd like them to see in this project is just to be more conscious about what they purchase. It's hard - we need to purchase things, and they usually come with this kind of plastic [packaging] and stuff. You just have to put a little effort in and try to be conscious."

After finishing the project, Juliana recycled all of the items - "It was a lot of work," she laughs - and spent much of the second year of her BA in Photographic Media composing still lifes in the Griffith College studios. Her early work, though, was in news photography, as she initially studied journalism in Sao Paolo.

"In the middle of college, I decided to try to learn English and to move to Ireland for a year," she explains. "I have no connection [to Ireland] at all, no family members, just myself. The first time I had the experience of speaking English in another country was in Canada, and I stayed there for a while, and then I didn't really feel like going to the US or the UK, so Ireland was my only option, actually.

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Disposable art by Juliana Falanghe

Disposable art by Juliana Falanghe

Disposable art by Juliana Falanghe

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"Over here, I was seeing all of the tourist stuff from going around to get to know the country, and I started to take loads of photographs. I realised I preferred doing this than journalism, and I really loved the country, so I decided to try to do college over here and see if it worked."

She travelled back to Brazil for Christmas last year, but says she worries about when she'll get to go home again, as that country's coronavirus outbreak has been one of the world's most severe.

Juliana was pleased, however, that her family were able to virtually attend the Smedias and see her win Photographer of the Year. She also felt thankful the ceremony took place on Zoom so she didn't have to get up on a stage in front of an audience to collect her award.

"I'm really shy, so it would be too much for me!" she laughs. "I felt really weird, because [the project] is something I showed only to my classmates and my family."

A year on from shooting her prize-winning project, Juliana hopes the message on waste prevention continues to spread, and that there will be some sort of green lining from the lockdown.

But with disposable masks now joining the litter on our streets, we may be falling back into bad habits. On top of that, in Juliana's native Brazil, the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest that caused international outcry last year have surged again.

"I still don't know if the pandemic will bring about change," she says. "I do hope and I work to make this difference, but it needs to be everyone doing something. When you put it all together, it's a huge difference." l


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