A few years ago, photographer Jeremy Underwood visited the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site in Texas and was shocked to find the beaches nearby overrun with plastic, wood, metal, and other debris.
“I found the strangest things, from a case of oranges to funny little figurines covered with languages I couldn’t read. It was nuts,” Underwood told Business Insider.
Underwood — who has documented the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl — thought about heading back out to the park to photograph the devastation. But then he decided he didn’t just want to take pictures of the trash. He wanted to transform it.
Underwood began collecting the debris into piles and constructing makeshift sculptures out of whatever he found. Some of the sculptures took weeks to make, while others took only a day. As the weeks and months went on, other beach-goers came to help build or collect debris.
The San Jacinto site sits along the Houston Ship Channel, which runs to the Gulf of Mexico and has been a major source of pollution in Texas. In 2007, the University of Texas suggested that children living near the channel developed cancer at a higher rate than the national average and, in 2014, two ships collided and caused an oil spill in the channel.
Over the years, Underwood has continued to work on his project there, called Human Debris. He works slowly, periodically heading out to collect debris or add to the sculptures. When his works are in progress, he hides them on a particularly polluted part of the beach that people generally don’t frequent.
The process of collecting, building, and photographing is both “physically and mentally exhausting,” Underwood says.
Underwood pursues this tiring project because he wants to start a conversation with Houston residents about the pollution in their backyard. That pollution may be more obvious to Underwood — who grew up in the woods of Missouri — than it is to people who have lived their entire lives in Houston.
While he generally leaves the sculptures on the beach for others to view and respond to, buildings and galleries have approached him and asked if they could show his work. He’s sceptical about moving his sculptures indoors, though.
“These sculptures are nasty and messy,” says Underwood. “They are covered in oil stains, bugs, and stuff that you don’t even know what it is.”