Conceptual artist Vik Muniz is known for using peanut butter and jelly, toy soldiers, or cast-off furniture to re-create famous pictures from art history or photojournalism, which he then turns into large-scale photographs. For his rendition of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, he shot a detailed drawing made with Bosco chocolate syrup. But Muniz has also taken on social issues such as the plight of sugarcane workers on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, by rerendering in white sugar on black paper snapshots of their smiling children.
For three years, starting in 2007, he turned to another politicized topic—garbage—observing and taking portraits of pickers from the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The pickers live in a squatting community and earn money by scavenging for recyclable materials and scrap metal. “What I would really like to do is take a group of people and change their lives from the very materials I use every day,” Muniz says.
The resulting series, “Pictures of Garbage” (2009), is the subject of a feature-length documentary directed by Lucy Walker. Waste Land will have its theatrical release at New York’s Angelika Film Center on October 29. It has already won critical acclaim and awards at the Sundance Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, and Amnesty International Film Festival.
Waste Land follows Muniz as he combs the garbage heap and recruits pickers to help him build images. Rather than merely documenting Muniz’s art-making process, the film examines his subjects in depth, allowing them to speak about their lives and their pride in their work.
Muniz decides to take portraits of six of the pickers, which he projects at an enormous scale in the studio he built for this purpose in Rio. He then asks the pickers to fill in the backgrounds of the images with hundreds of objects from the landfill. Standing atop scaffolding, he photographs the completed pictures. After arguing with his wife and assistants about what the impact of the project will be, he decides to give the proceeds from the sale of his photographs to the Association of Garbage Workers of Jardim Gramacho. The project has so far raised more than $250,000.
One star of the film is Tião Santos, the charismatic leader of the workers’ association, whom Muniz photographs as the revolutionary leader in the bathtub in Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat. Santos accompanies Muniz to London to witness the sale of his portrait for $50,000 at Phillips de Pury & Company. By the time the “Pictures of Garbage” series is shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, in 2009, Santos has become a celebrity, appearing on talk shows to promote his organization.
The São Paolo–born Muniz, who himself grew up in modest circumstances, sums up his feelings in the film. “Like these people, I was born in a lower-middle-class household,” he says. “If something happened to my parents, I could have wound up just like them.”