Nurdles. Plastic pellets. Tracy and I were walking the rails at Lake Buhlow many years ago now. The spotting was going nowhere, not a train in sight so we were looking at and photographing the grafitti on the boxcars. There was a whole line of those ubiquitous pale grey hoppers standing at rest on one of the spurs, and down a ways from a line of these hoppers there was a big pile of...something. At a distance it was pearly white, finely textured, and covered an oval several feet across and was pressed up against one of the rails. Closer inspection revealed it to be a spill of tiny round plastic beads, a whole mound of off-white, semi-translucent nodules.
Naturally I was interested. They were neat, and they might make an interesting photo. I had Tracy scoop up a bunch in her cupped hands, and I snapped a photo.
I was just beginning to think in terms of my "Blowing Things Out of Your Hands" theme so I had her blow them out of her hands really hard, too. The lighting was weird but I got what I wanted--a shower of these little plastic thingies flying.
She dropped them, we went on. Soon we found one hopper with a cap off and sure enough, more plastic pellets. Mystery solved. They fell out of an 'empy' train car. I went home that evening, uploaded a few of that day's photos to Flickr and forgot about it.
It's funny, looking back, how the smallest thing can begin rolling, snowballing as it were.
Months and months later I got an email from a stranger. I found out later he was an editor for Wikipedia, working on an article for something called "nurdles." Pre-production plastic pellets. It seems that those tiny white beads are the foundation material for all things manufactured out of plastic, be it your car's dashboard or the bottle that holds your bleach. Plastic things come from nurdles, and he wanted to use the image. I said "Sure!" thinking that it'd be kind of cool to have a tiny piece of the internet staked out with my name on it, and that little bit of virtual real estate had nothing to do with an epic fail or pr0n or anything. Nice.
Another email came. This time it came from The Sierra Club, and the use of that image both online and in a print version of the Sierra Club Magazine netted me $30 or so, and some print copies of the magazine to add to my portfolio, which I still need help from someone in designing. I was thrilled! Appearing in print! And I found out that those little plastic dealies are a major pollutant in watersheds. Fish see them as food (fish eggs, likely enough) and eat them. They can't digest them, naturally, so they stay in the fish's stomach forever. Fish fill up on them and die of starvation.
Then it kept rolling.
The BSU Beachwatchers asked to use it for a brochure, which sadly I never got a copy of. Come on you guys, get with it!
Then the coup, which has a funny twist to it. A very pleasant representative of the Indiana Railroad contacted me to use that same photo for their 2010 calendar. May, to be exact, an inset over a photo of a train of hoppers carrying nurdles to a production plant. From use in an environmental awareness magazine to use by the folks who transport them every day and night. The twist? A railroad worker's carelessness lead to me finding them in the first place. Full circle, anyone? I asked for a calendar or two in exchange for use of the photo. The representative from the IRR went me one better: that little photo paid off in some very nice swag, most all of it in Indiana Railroad red, and thanks again guys!
I just got another email yesterday, this time from someone in the Great White North. PNW actually, a researcher working for the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre Redesign Project in Canada. They're redesigning and modernizing the Pacific Rim NPR at Wickaninnish Beach and...wait for it...they need some photos. I'm betting this one will be used to highlight some of the pollutants that no doubt show up on their beaches just as it shows up on beaches all over the world.
Naturally I said yes. I'm thinking about asking for a big scoop of sand in exchange.
The image is online under a Creative Commons Attribution License. That means anyone who wants to use the image can use it, just so long as they attribute it to me. Sadly the internets is not a nice place--type "nurdles" into any search engine set to "image" and you'll find that picture in many places, without my name attached and without anyone caring enough to drop me an email and say "Hey dude, can we use your picture?" I mean, it's not like I'd say "NO!" or demand money. *shrug* It's easier to steal, naturally.
I'm not angry or hurt over this, interestingly. I figure this little photo is not my Mona Lisa, is not my defining piece of work. It's a snapshot, taken on a whim. I just didn't know it would be so in demand. I actually like the attention, and who wouldn't? I can point (as I just did) to several places where my work has some worth to someone. Oh sure, I could ask for money for it, but what would that get me? Nothing. No money, and no exposure. No one is going to pay for a photo of a handful of plastic when they can steal it elsewhere. At least this way my name is attached to, oh, maybe a quarter of its use.
And anyway, fame! Wikifame! What better feeling could you get from snapping a picture of a pile of plastic bits?