Photograph by Greg Kahn
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A man rides through the small town of Casapesenna. Just over the wall near the train tracks sits a pile of garbage.
Photograph by Greg Kahn

Q&A: Greg Kahn on Exposing Toxic Threats in Italy

Have you ever tracked how much waste you create during a week, or even a month? Every time I clean my house or walk down a neighborhood street I marvel at the sheer amount of waste we create. But where does it all go? And what happens when large companies, ones that use tons of toxic chemicals, are not forced to dispose of waste in safe, healthy ways? In Campania, Italy, the toxic waste situation has become so dire that children and adults alike are developing rare cancers. Photographer Greg Kahn set out to document this issue in a country that is simultaneously beautiful and torn apart by organized crime and governmental failure. I corresponded with Kahn over email and asked him about his project which he calls “The Sleep of Reason,” after a famous Goya etching called “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”

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A woman sells pig intestines along the side of the street in Melito, one of the towns seeing a spike in cancer rates linked to toxic dumping.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you first find out about the waste dumping problem in Italy?

GREG KAHN: I first heard about toxic waste dumping in southern Italy from a good friend who is working in Naples. As we talked about environmental issues, he relayed what he had seen and heard about toxic waste dumping north of where he lived and I began researching. I read as much as I could about the issue, and then contacted a gentleman named Antonio Giordano, who heads a cancer research center in southern Italy, and teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He relayed first-hand accounts of witnessing dozens of children in hospitals with rare brain cancers—the kind that only 1 in 100,000 get. But seven children in a town of 40,000 developed the same rare cancer. This town is located in an area next to a large, illegal toxic waste dump that was recently unearthed.

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Anna Pouti, 18, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in July 2011, on her birthday.

JANNA: What compelled you to work on this story?

GREG: Before embarking on this project, I imagined Italy as fairly idyllic—rolling hills, sun-covered vineyards, and fertile farmland. This story seemed to fall through the cracks of international public attention. It was covered initially in foreign media when Carmine Schiavone, a member of a Mafia family in the Campania region, went to authorities and told them about “millions of tons” of toxic waste buried deep in the earth in what once was some of the most fertile farmland in Italy. I wanted to see how this legacy of poisoning the ground was impacting the communities. There is a psychological torment every time families cook dinner, take a shower, or venture outside and breathe. Even the air is contaminated. Instead of focusing on the Mafia, I wanted to focus on the culture, and examine how a once beautiful part of the world had become something of a modern wasteland.

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Industrial waste lies on the outskirts of farmland in the Campania region of Italy. Toxic by-products without proper disposal seep into the soil causing unknown damage.

JANNA: Why focus on Italy? Isn’t toxic waste dumping an issue in other countries?

GREG: What’s been shocking to me is this problem isn’t necessarily worse than in other parts of the world, but it’s as bad as developing nations that don’t have the same resources as Italy. In the Campania region, piles of garbage line the highways, farmland, and playgrounds. Heaps of waste and industrial by-products sit under overpasses, and are torched in large fires that billow poisonous black smoke. It’s not uncommon to see mounds of asbestos lying along the highway and appliances—stripped of their copper and recyclables—scattered about the countryside. Suddenly, this wasn’t just a story of the Mafia inflicting catastrophic damage to a region, but a systemic cultural issue of waste disposal. Piles of waste from a variety of sources, including residents and local businesses, are all covered with thin layers of soil. They look like tumors on the land.

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An empty carnival ride at the Villaggio Coppola public beach. The water at the beach is next to where the Regi Lagni canal system dumps the runoff from the buried toxic waste into the sea.

JANNA: Is the waste issue widespread, or is it concentrated in pockets? What do the areas surrounding Campania look like?

GREG: There are two separate views of the issue. One is cosmetic. It’s the piles of trash visible from the road, or the columns of black smoke that can be seen for miles, drifting over communities every day during the warm months. But the more serious consequences come from what isn’t experienced by sight or smell. The Mafia concealed their crimes, burying the waste so far below the ground that it’s mixing with the water table. And because the Mafia didn’t keep any records of illegally burying the industrial waste, the hospital waste, and everything in between, the whole area is affected. No one knows which crops have been growing on top of dump sites, or which ones have been irrigated with contaminated water. Families I talked to had their own theories about what was causing their illnesses. Some blamed the food, while others pointed at the water or air. No one had any answers, and it adds to the public’s frustration not only with the Mafia, but with the government as well.

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Teenagers watch the annual protest to mark the murder of Giuseppe Diana, a local priest that instructed his parishioners to shun the Mafia, in Casal di Principe, a stronghold of the region’s Mafia, the Camorra.

JANNA: What do you hopes do you have for this project, moving forward?

GREG: In the short term, I want this project to lead to action in the region. There is plenty that can be done to reverse the current situation. And although there is no magic potion to cleanse the land, healing can start by ending the continuous dumping of toxic materials. But even the cleanup is jeopardized. Some Italian officials worry that the Mafia now own all the companies tasked with cleaning dump sites, generating profit for the Mafia by fixing a problem they caused. And no one would be surprised if the waste was then simply moved to another location instead of being disposed of properly.

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Harvested scraps of fennel lie on the soil of a farm less than a mile from an industrial incinerator in Acerra. The controversial incinerator is blamed for burning toxic materials mixed in with regular garbage and poisoning the crops on the farms surrounding it.

In the long term, I hope this project is used to talk about the problems concerning waste disposal worldwide. As the world’s population and the demand for raw materials increases to support the growing public, it is crucial to find a set of responsible solutions for waste disposal. Southern Italy’s situation isn’t only Italy’s problem, because flowing water or drifting air currents don’t respect political boundaries.

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A patient recovers from surgery after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Recently, in areas where the Mafia is suspected of dumping toxic waste, there has been a spike in respiratory as well as breast and pancreatic cancer.

JANNA: Is there a good solution to the toxic waste problem?

GREG: There is no easy or quick solution to the problems facing the Campania region in Italy. Waste education and cultural practices need to be changed. A major obstacle I see is a lack of organization to combat the issues. Some farmers voluntarily take soil samples to clear their crops from being labeled poisonous. Others don’t, for fear of jeopardizing their livelihood. Some residents pay $400 to send hair samples to testing labs in the United States to check for heavy metal accumulation in their bodies. But not everyone can afford testing. And while the initial efforts are scattered and disorganized, there is a groundswell of reaction to the growing health and environmental crisis. “It’s here now, but it can be anywhere,” Luisa Crisci, a mother that lost her child to a rare brain cancer, said. “The problem is 30 years old, the difference is that we’re aware of it now.”

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Technicians at a cancer research lab in Mercogliano test treatments on cancer cells to study potential strategies for dealing with the disease.

JANNA: What is remarkable about people’s response to this situation?

GREG: What struck me the most was that there were still many people all over Campania who were not resigned to their circumstances, but instead, kept pushing back against Mafia control. The Mafia are the ones with overwhelming power and money, inflicting consequences of their greed on others. But every year on March 20, thousands gather at the entrance to Casal di Principe, a stronghold of the Camorra, and march through the narrow streets with signs, chanting that they will not be intimidated. It’s a demonstration to commemorate Giuseppe Diana, a local priest that was murdered for telling his parishioners to shun the Mafia. Every year, the protest ends with a rally at Father Diana’s grave giving a sense of purpose to the community that things can be changed.

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Gian Luca Galletti, the minister of the environment in Italy, leaves a church in Caivano after talking with angry residents demanding action in dealing with the toxic dumping crisis. Residents have been critical of the Italian government for not doing enough to combat the Mafia’s illegal dumping.

Greg Kahn is a founding member of Grain, a photography collective. View more of Grain’s work and ongoing projects on their website. You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.