It is often said that New York is a city only for the very rich or for the very poor. The New York of the rich is a vertical metropolis, the other one - the one I presented as a guest lecturer to Food Studies students - is horizontal. It is populated by people who keep their eyes on the ground, who walk tirelessly and pick up cans and bottles on the streets to make a living. They call themselves “canners” or “lateros” depending on their origin. In New York, there are thousands of them and they are hard to miss: they push heavy carts overflowing with empty containers. Once the cart is full, they usually head to a redemption center where they can return each piece for five cents thanks to a State law known as the Bottle Bill.
Working as a grantee at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration between Columbia and Stanford universities, I carried out a project with a canners community in Brooklyn for more than a year. I conducted interviews, collected qualitative and quantitative data, tracked their itineraries and snapped visual notes that inspired a series of illustrations. As a journalist, I tried to incorporate in my practice different techniques borrowed from other fields, always maintaining journalistic ethics as an essential parameter. Oral history methods inspired more open-ended and revealing interviews; critical cartography became a way to suggest alternatives to categories of knowledge that we usually don't question; a manual collection of data allowed me to understand the human and imperfect nature of data; illustration enabled me to represent vulnerable individuals while protecting their identities. The main challenge was to set and follow a series of ethical “rules” in order to establish a strong connection with the canners while continuing to remind them of my role and intentions.
I gathered most of the collected material on the website canners.nyc and published excerpts of my work with NPR, RAI (Radio3,) The Guardian and Internazionale. Overall this project has been an opportunity to further my research on new, more empowering and co-owned ways to approach journalism and more in general storytelling, a reflection that I’m sure could be expanded and deepened in the field of Food Studies, one of the most compelling and urgent questions of our times.