Roland Wilhelm, 61, empties trash cans for a living. He's been doing the same job for 36 years, come rain, sleet or snow. The work is best described as honest manual labor. When Wilhelm, wearing his orange uniform, drags dumpsters on wheels around the streets of Hamburg, some people say a friendly hello to him, while others make uncharitable remarks. Most people just ignore him.
His employer, the Hamburg sanitation department, wondered if there was a way to make the job more satisfying. They commissioned the well-known German advertising agency Scholz & Friends to come up with a public relations campaign -- with surprisingly successful results. It turned the lowly garbage collector into something of a star.
Along with 10 of his colleagues, Wilhelm photographed his favorite places in Hamburg using a dumpster converted into a pinhole camera, dubbed the "trashcam." The results are spectacular black-and-white images which quickly became an Internet and media sensation.
They also impressed the jury at the Cannes Lions advertising festival, which runs until Saturday: The campaign was awarded the Silver Lion earlier this week. The Lions awards are the most coveted accolades in the international advertising industry.
Wilhelm has been featured in both the German and international press and is now regularly approached by passersby during his daily rounds. "It's really something unique," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Nobody expected it to be so successful." Wilhelm says the response so far has been entirely positive. But what's more important to him, he says, is that it has raised awareness of garbage collectors' work. "Now even more people see what we do."
The dumpster camera is based on the centuries-old principle of pinhole photography. The light enters the front of the dumpster through an 8-millimeter (0.3-inch) pinhole and is projected onto an 80-centimeter by 1 meter (31 inches by 39 inches) piece of photographic paper inside the container. There is no shutter. Instead, the exposure begins when Wilhelm and his colleagues lift the small flap over the pinhole.
Exposing a photo in the 1,100-liter (290-gallon) bin takes between five and 70 minutes. The sanitation workers calculate the exact time with the help of a light meter. They don't know whether the photograph has been successful until they develop it in the lab that evening. Among the subjects that Wilhelm chose for his photographs were piers in the Hamburg harbor and two squares in the city's St. Georg district.
But taking photographs with the dumpster camera was more difficult than expected. Often the garbage collectors had to stop unsuspecting passersby from throwing their garbage into the camera. "We were always quicker," says Wilhelm with a laugh.
Wilhelm himself is a keen amateur photographer and enjoys collecting old cameras. He already has 170 models in his collection. Although he doesn't have a pinhole camera yet, he is considering making one together with his grandchildren. "I hope I can get them interested by showing them our pictures," he says. An exhibition of the large-format photographs begins Saturday in the Axel Springer Passage exhibition space in Hamburg. Wilhelm is planning to attend the opening with his entire family.
But the over-sized camera met with a tragic end during the Trashcam project. A specially modified van was used to transport the camera around the city, but the dumpster slammed into the side when the vehicle had to make an emergency stop. A crack now lets light into the interior, making photography impossible.
Despite the broken dumpster, the Hamburg sanitation department is very satisfied with the project, which has arguably improved their image. "It couldn't have gone any better," says company spokesman Andree Möller.
The Hamburg sanitation department clearly has a nose for clever guerilla marketing. Trash cans in Hamburg have long been adorned with punning speech bubbles featuring slogans along the lines of: "I'm happy to do your dirty work."
Möller doesn't want to reveal the exact cost of the campaign. He says, however, that it was "a bargain."