Manfredi Pantanella

Leaving Rubbish

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is one of the world’s largest cities, more than 25 million inhabitants which produces a lot of wastes.

Until today an ad-lib urban plan could not manage the situation, leaving the city flooding in the trash.

No chance. Luckily, Cairo has the Zabbaleen.

The Zabbaleen are a religious minority of Coptic Christians who have served as 
Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for the past 80 years. Zabbaleen means
 “Garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic.

Spread out among seven different settlements scattered in the Greater Cairo Urban Region, the Zabbaleen population is about
 80,000. The largest settlement is in the village of Moqattam, better known as the
 “Garbage City”, located at the feet of the
 Moqattam Mountains, next to Manshiyat Naser, a Muslim squatter settlement 
where the 90 percent of the community of this region are of Christian faith followers.
 For the past decades the Zabbaleen have supported themselves by collecting the 
trash, going door-to-door, for almost no
 charges. The Zabbaleens currently recycle up to 80 percent of the collected waste, whereas only 25 percent is reused by Western garbage companies. 
Many sources agree that the Zabbaleen have created one of the most efficient
 recycling systems in the world, they collect up to 3,000 tons of 
garbage every day.

The government does not reward the Zabbaleen for their actions, but instead has created a privatized system of waste collection, which is threatening the 
socio-economic sustainability of the Zabbaleen community.

The Egyptian government announced its plans to modernize and ‘Westernize’ the city’s waste management system, claiming the Zabbaleen’s methods were backward and unhygienic. This is not entirely false. Although conditions are improving, diseases such as hepatitis are common. This is hardly surprising when rubbish, including sharp metal, broken glass, and hospital waste such as syringes, are all sorted by hand.

However, the Zabbaleen were joined by many international aid agencies in protesting that the only way to lift them out of poverty was to allow them to keep their jobs as the city’s rubbish collectors. In a country with a 10.8% unemployment rate and with 20% of the population living in poverty, they had a point.

The three European companies hired to clean up Cairo cost $50 million a year, and recycled at best 25% of the waste they collected. The companies offered to hire the Zabbaleen as collectors, but offered as little as a dollar a day, half what a Zabbaleen can earn working for himself. However, the privatisation system has failed, leaving the city with litter-strewn streets and the continued use of the unsanitary landfill sites. Some have claimed that all the new modernisation initiatives have done is inspire a new generation of street waste collectors.




Manfredi Pantanella was born in 1985.

He lives between Rome and Paris. He attended The “Centro Sperimentale di Fotografia” of Rome and the “Ecole Superieure de Photographie et d’ Audiovisuel” of Paris. He work on stories about subcultures and documentary photography.

He has worked as an assistant for Reza (National Geographic Fellow).


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Manfredi Pantanella

38 thoughts on “Manfredi Pantanella – Leaving Rubbish”

  1. I have to say this is one of my favorite series ever on Burn. A photographer who I respect advised me not so long ago, show people something they haven’t seen, that they can’t ordinarily see. I feel like I’m looking into another world that I never would have imagined, and I’m looking over the shoulder of someone who really sees and respects the life there.

    This are not expressive for the sake of expression, not blurred for the effect, not bizarrely defying interpretation. I don’t necessarily object to such qualities, but I’m encouraged once again by the power of straight up photography in the hands of someone who can really and truly be there and show us. Well done.

  2. What a great essay! Love the color tones.
    This is something I had no idea about. Thank you for bringing awareness to this situation.

  3. Manfredi – Thanks for this work and for not focusing on pictures showing people living among piles of trash and household discard, but instead just focusing on the people. As an Egyptian I am very happy you saw the humanity in this story and the fact this community has taken it upon itself to take care of something no one else wants to deal with and they have made something profitable and successful out of it. I also appreciate the info you gave with the story, all factual and well reasearched.

    As an Egyptian I can’t help but look crtitically at work coming out of my country.

    Maybe I’ll meet you in Cairo sometime ==> L.

  4. Congratulations Manfredi.

    This is wonderfully done. What a great story, and beautifully told. What an amazing contrast to the typical garbage collector pictures we often see. These people may be very poor, but are a vibrant community, and perform a valuable service. I am struck by the contrast between the level of recycling done there and here in the west. There is a lesson here.

    I’m a big fan of honest, sensitive, gimmick free photographs. This is very well done.

  5. This was one of those essays that I decided to look at first before reading a word of the story. It drew me in from the first image and held me riveted to the last – a superb job of story-telling, one that took me into a world I had no idea even existed. I then read the text and it did add context, but even without that context, the superb photography, editing and captions gave me an understanding of what I previously had no idea of.

    This is among Burn’s best.

    Congratulations, Manfredi!

  6. Brilliant beautiful photographs. I can’t help but to keep thinking of an episode of Hoarders I saw the other night (was sick in bed watching the rare bit of TV). It left me scarred. A seemingly normal husband and wife lived with their teenage son in a house full of garbage. Full on rotting garbage everywhere. The American dream gone wrong, horribly horribly wrong. (turns out it was depression sparked by the death of a baby)

    And yet here we see people with difficult situations who have not much choice but to work with garbage yet seem to maintain a spark and decency about their lives. I don’t know, I just find the contrast startling. Not to say there isn’t pain and suffering but just how different people cope with that. How some choose to rule the garbage or let the garbage rule them.

  7. You know, what really bugs me is that the urinal in this dump is two feet high by 18 inches wide, and there are still guys here in our happy little burg who cannot hit what they’re aiming at. If they can’t hit a target that large, they might as well go outside and piss against the wall, although they’d probably miss that, too. Some people will go to some pretty extreme lengths to be just plain dumb.

  8. Ahh the wonders of photography making garbage and a marginal life look wonderful so fellow photographers can say how wonderful it all is and………….. say it wasn’t me who added to these woes

  9. Panos – laughing here!

    Imantz – Another essay giving at least one photographer another opportunity to misinterpret both the essay and the responses to it and to look down in disdain from his superior perch at all those poor photographers whose focus on this world is not nearly so sharp as his is.

  10. One thing about it you are quick ti judge judge yourself or learn to widen your views. take a good look at how you use others for your personal gain as a photographer

  11. Take the people images from your blog and you have nothing that is what a lot of photography is about using photos of people to make a personal statement. I do ,you do, it we all basically do it here. So stop prancing around as if you are some sort of pure soul.

  12. So go judge yourself frostfog you also forget what you wrote under my essay……… I gain and I never denied it……….. appropriation a great vehicle of communication

  13. Imants – I may not remember the precise words I wrote under your essay, but I do believe I remember the message and it was complimentary, and praiseful. Never have I attacked or denigrated your work. I believe you to be a very creative and talented person – even brilliant. I am certain your students learn much from you and I believe they are lucky to have you as a teacher.

    Even so, of all those who post regularly on this forum, your voice strikes me as being the most consistently sour. I seldom see a good reason for your sourness. It also seems to me that you are the most quick to denigrate others – and it almost always strikes me as gratuitous. You also seem quicker to take offense than does anyone else, and slower to let go of that offense.

    In this case, I did not state or imply anything good or bad about how you or anyone else here makes a living through the use of their photo subjects.

    As to your original comment on this thread, I could see but one point to it: to tell the rest of us that you are on a higher plane of consciousness than we are. So I decided to attempt to point that out to you in a comment that in tone mirrored your own.

    I should not have done it. I apologize. Go in peace.

  14. Congratulations for being here Manfredi.
    This is a very well shot, edited well-researched and balanced essay. I echo Laura’s point on showing a different aspect of the life of a social group that so easily could have descended to cliches.
    It might be a tiny bit too linear and traditional in its approach for my taste but this is not a criticism, just a matter of personal preferences. Well done!

  15. A fine essay, glad to see this corner of the world depicted in this manner–an antidote to some of the decorative and somewhat conceptual work that seems to glut the photography world.

  16. I will ignore your denigrating of me and once again Frostfrog all I do is question what is presented you are happy to accept the status quo.
    No a response to how you use people in your images for your personal gain on your blog and that is the issue here how the photographers use others and especially their misfortunes. Having a camera in your hand does not make anyone an instant good guy and that goes for you as well………

  17. Imants, my personal gain on my blog probably amounts to maybe a nickel for every hour I have put into it, if that much, and if that much, it only rose to that level thanks to the generosity of another photographer who regularly posts here… this issue of personal gain is one that I did not bring up here, I did not challenge you on it, I don’t care what you do to gain income from your photos and I don’t judge you for it – it is irrelevant to me, unless by chance I can model it and get a little gain myself, which I doubt, because we are trying to do different things with similar tooks… you just drug up this whole issue of personal gain out of your own mind and projected it onto me.

    Trust me, if I could find a way to make my blog pay and reap personal gain for me, I would surely do it, because I love to blog, but so far, I haven’t a clue. It’s not about being a good guy or a bad guy… that’s another invention you just made… it’s about loving something, having passion for something, so you do it if there’s money to be had and you do it if there’s no money to be had… you do it if you’re good, you do it if you’re bad… you do it if you have talent, you do it if you don’t.

    It’s PASSION, my most irritating, stubborn, and bullheaded friend Imants… PASSION!!!

    And maybe a touch of insanity as well.

    Manfredi has PASSION, TALENT, VISION and he is a damn good story-teller. His magnificent essay here fits into no status quo I know of.

    Again, I apologize… to Manfredi and the others here… I should have ignored your first comment, Imants… all I accomplished was to ignite an asinine, pointless, discussion that is a distraction from the real discussion. I feel bad that I took your bait and so ignited it. I should not have. I should know better. I will do my best to just let you be in the future, whatever you say, and not respond, because you and I are like fire and gasoline and it’s best we just stay away from each other.

    Now, Imants – I give you the last shot. Make it your best.

  18. Personal gain is not connected to money try to broaden your thinking and not be so one dimensional it is using others for gain whether it be information, an idea,images on a personal blog, a point of view, a political or environmental statement etc. . I am not sure that people would be happy about having their photo plastered all over the net, because they are being forced into drug running, prostitution, picking up garbage, being portrayed as killers, etc nor would you like to be seen next to a dead seal looking as if you enjoy doing the activity but that is what photographs do. Things get placed out of context. Photographers come in take a few shots write a script and pretend that it is the gospel truth, with statements like many sources etc it is

  19. I think this is one of those sets of pictures that work mainly because they support an interesting story. A story most of us are probably not familiar with. I dont think all the pictures are great, but then they dont really have to be. They serve to punctuate and inform, rather than attempting to be become Icons. That said there are some good images in here, but if you de-contextualised them, many of them falter.

    Frankly the debate about positive imagery rather than negative is strange in this context (ie. the relatively affluent westerners) Much more about the needs of the viewer than the subjects.
    What I mean is that viewing a story about the positive, striving and surviving aspects of poverty, versus the sinking, degrading, hopeless side of poverty….is still just a view into the ghetto of someone elses life.
    We as viewers are just as removed and alienated from either.
    And saying to ourselves
    “look how well they are doing, coping with living in squalor and recycling things..I would much rasther see this than people starving and dying”
    and thinking that that somehow makes us ‘better’ people because it allows us to turn away from the fact that their life IS squalid, is a shame on us.

    We should be able at least to view the whole picture, and try to understand that, no matter how much it sours our afternoon latte.

  20. ow, Imants – I give you the last shot. Make it your best. Is that some sort of threat or have you just lost your marbles lol

  21. They’re lives are squalid, they’re lives are not squalid… Obviously, it’s not one or the other. There are plenty of OTHER examples of photography that paints the lives of the poor as 95 percent depressing or beautiful, but this is not one of those essays IMO.

    Every photographer has a bias, a viewpoint, a story to tell that comes from within. In this case, I think it’s that people have dignity whatever their situation. I think the people in these photographs are portrayed with dignity. I’m okay with that. I think portraying people at the margins with dignity, as part of real stories that matter, does far more FOR them that photography that portrays them as defeated, nearly sub-human.

    Back to those of us who are perhaps wealthy, over-educated elites, I tend think our group struggles much more with having squalid, sub-human lives. Here in Cambodia, I recently talked with a friend who is “at the margins.” He couldn’t understand at all why anyone would commit suicide. He’s poor, but he’s not living a squalid life, at least not in simplistic comparison to ours.

    Dignity, a real story of what it means to be human … Am I feeling better after that? I hope so. People who feel better about the the world, about themselves, and about others in need, are much more likely to make changes and take action (and learn through inevitable mistakes) than cynics who have given up already and people perpetually weighed down by the world, anesthetizing themselves and each other with drugs and art, or art and drugs, whatever.

  22. This is where it all falls apart “Some have claimed that all the new modernisation initiatives” and “Many sources agree that the Zabbaleen … ” that is no different to writing Senator Josh Smith was caught with his pants down and showing a picture the stating it happened at a hotel that could be used by call girls but failed to mention that the photographer sneaked into a toilet cubicle during a lecture given by the senator. It is poor journalism

  23. I really enjoyed this essay. I didn’t see it as traditional journalism, or Burn as a newspaper-style journalism venue. I thought it solid and interesting storytelling on a subject I knew nothing about, and even better, it showed a fresh perspective of communities often in the news from the bottom-up and the edges instead of the more traditional mile-high viewpoint. Thanks for sharing this with BURN.

  24. “Some have claimed that” and “many sources agree that…” Who are the some claiming what about the new modernization initiatives and what are the many sources agreeing about the Zabbaleen? Unless you’re the New York Times offering an unacknowledged mini-editorial in the midst of your straight news coverage, you should avoid the use of the passive voice whenever possible. The Times should avoid using the passive voice as well, but I know they’re not going to, not when it’s so useful for them.

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  26. Pingback: Basura y comunidad: el caso de los zabbaleen de Mokattam en Egipto – Andén Digital

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