Ridges and divots cover a vast, snow-white expanse, an airy landscape primed for exploring. But Vilde Rolfsen’s photos ― which resemble aerial shots of mountain ranges ― aren’t showing nature at all. Just the opposite: Her series “Plastic Bag Landscapes” catalogs waste that she found in the street.
It’s hard not to make the comparison to the pat “American Beauty” quote, co-opted by snarkers everywhere: “It’s hard to stay bad when there’s so much beauty in the world,” an angry teen remarks while watching a video of a plastic bag dancing in the wind.
But Rolfsen wants viewers to be mad. She says her art may not be overtly political, but she wants her message ― that using plastic bags at stores rather than picking up something reusable is irresponsible ― to be heard. At the bottom of the series shown on her site, she appends the note, “Plastic bags are a huge contributor to the landfill waste and are extremely harmful for our oceans and the creatures living there. Do not say yes to a plastic bag when shopping.”
“I wanted to do a project that would trigger something with the viewers. But everything I did ended up being too propaganda-ish,” Rolfsen said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “I know by personal experiences that it rarely works to tell people what to do. Instead I wanted to work within my field as a fine art photographer, to make people think by themselves.”
While living in the U.K., Rolfsen picked up plastic bags that she found lying on the ground, cleaned them off, lit them up in her studio and photographed them, doing light Photoshop work after the fact. The effect, she hopes, is that of discomfort, as a result of “something human-made, something that actually is destroying our oceans and earth, juxtaposed into a beautiful landscape.”
“When I have exhibited my work, people would come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been looking at this for a while and while it is beautiful I feel disgusted with myself because I now understand what this work is about,’” Rolfsen said. “I think that sums it up pretty nicely.”
Rolfsen’s particular anger over the wastefulness of plastic bags stems from her move from Norway ― where large, reusable bags are the norm ― to the U.K., where she began the series.
“When I lived in the U.K. they had the plastic bags, which I photographed, and they are useless! They break, you can’t use them for trash, and they are too small. You have to buy an extra roll of bin bags! What a waste!” she said.
Although Rolfsen considers her photography fine art, she takes no issue with her work being categorized as altruistic.
“I think political art is very important today, especially with all the shit going on with the Brexit, Donald Trump, how we treat women and the LGBT community, terror attacks and wars,” she said. “We live in a time where our future is very uncertain, and I think political art has a huge impact on the world.”