Human Debris: Interview with Jeremy Underwood

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photos by Jeremy Underwood

Texas-based photographer Jeremy Underwood puts a positive mark on the world with his sculptures of other people’s trash.

Tell us about yourself and what you do for a living.

Currently, I’m in the last year of my MFA at the University of Houston. Prior to this, I spend the last decade as a commercial photographer.

Have you always lived in the Houston area? What is your relationship with the city?

I’ve been in Houston for two years so far working on my MFA so the city is relatively new to me. I spent the better part of a decade in Northern California before I moved to Houston.

Where did the original inspiration for Human Debris come from?

Originally, I had visited San Jacinto Battleground State Historical Site. This area marks the famous Battle of San Jacinto that brought Texas its’ independence. I simply couldn’t believe the devastated state these beaches were in on such hallowed ground.  Trash covered the beach, from end to end, a sad testament to the problem at hand. For the first time as a landscape photographer, I felt that taking a picture simply wasn’t enough. I began collecting debris from the beach and assembling sculptures in hopes that others would take notice and see the appalling conditions of the waterways.

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How long did it take to collect and assemble each piece?

Sometimes they took days, sometimes weeks. Everything was done in the open on a public beach so a lot was up to chance. Some days were spent collecting; only to find the next day that someone had taken the material away. Other days, people that I had met while building the structures would leave collected debris for me to use on my next sculpture. This became an interesting part of the process. The public began helping me to clean the beach.

How would you describe your creations as sculptures? As organisms? Creatures? 

In the beginning, I was responding to what was in the landscape. A twisted stick became a wooden spiral. A circle emulated the shape of the sun. But soon, they began to become anthropomorphic. The objects began to come alive in the landscape, and in a new way, a part of the landscape.

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What is your goal in bringing inanimate discarded objects to life?

For me, the project was more micro in scale. It was about that trash, on that beach, in that condition. But I think it is easy for most people to relate because it comments on the much larger problem of the pervasion of pollution. Nobody is immune.

How do you feel the consumer culture of our affects the way we live? Why is it so important to you to bring these issues to light?

Man’s effects on this planet is undeniable. I read that human beings now have a larger impact on the landscape than the rain. But how does one individual posit change? The big picture seems a Herculean feat to overcome, so I started simple, with a piece of trash at my feet that needed to be dealt with. It is a small gesture, I know, but my hope is that others will notice one small piece of trash at their feet and wonder what else can be done with it.

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www.jeremyunderwood.com

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