About the 2015 fellow

In the sprawling city of Cairo, the zabaleen — members of a minority Coptic Christian community — have made their living collecting and recycling trash for seven decades.

Sara Lafleur-Vetter, winner of the 2015 Dorothea Lange Fellowship, plans to use her $4,000 winnings for a project documenting the lives of the zabaleen —and the struggle between tradition and modernity in Egypt their story exemplifies.

The Graduate School of Journalism student says her interest in photography began at an early age. Growing up without her dad, who died when she was two, Lafleur spent a lot of time “flipping through the photo albums, National Geographic images and slides he took on his travels in the Navy,” she says.

She developed an early interest in world cultures as well. At her Quaker high school outside Philadelphia, a history teacher who spoke Russian piqued her interest in all things Russian. “I was blown away by the language,” Lafleur recalls.

At Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, she majored in anthropology and Russian and did a semester in St. Petersburg — where she returned later to do a photo series on NGOs that serve homeless children and adults with disabilities.

On another project abroad — photographing for an archeological excavation project in Luxor, on the Nile — Lafleur began learning Arabic, which (bolstered by additional study) will serve her as she interacts with Egypt’s zabaleen.

In the past, Lafleur notes, the Egyptian government provided the zabaleen with a modest stipend for their work collecting Cairo’s trash (using trucks and donkeys), then sorting it in their neighborhood and selling or utilizing the material. Under this system, the zabaleen efficiently recycled 80 percent of the city’s waste.

“A decade ago,” says Lafleur, “the Mubarak regime placed waste collection in the hands of four corporate firms, cutting 65,000 zabaleen out the process.” How this resilient community is regrouping — by working both within and outside the new system — is something she hopes to document with her camera.