The Dignity and Despair of Trash Collectors in the World's Largest Waste Land

tiao print photo

Artist Vik Muniz takes the photo of Tiao Santos as Marat (left) for the print entitled "Marat/Sebastio - Pictures of Garbage" (right). Photo credit: Vik Muniz Studio
The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment. A combination of sounds turns into music. And that applies to everything.—Vik Muniz

Outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a stretch of land known as Jardim Gramacho. Here, trash from the city—more than 7,000 tons every day—is piled in high mounds. Among this vast landfill—the largest in the world—live an estimated 20,000 people, half of which are involved directly in the local recycling industry.

At least 2,500 of these residents are catadores, garbage pickers who make their living sorting recyclables from the refuse, then selling them to local processors. Artist Vik Muniz traveled to Brazil to "change the lives of [the catadores] with the same material they deal with every day."

Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho photo

Artist Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho. Photo credit: Vik Muniz Studio

A native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Muniz was accidentally shot in the leg as a young man. With the compensation he received for his injuries, Muniz moved to New York City, where he has worked as an artist ever since.

Muniz has used dirt, diamonds, sugar, string, chocolate syrup, and garbage to create images—which explore the multiple dimensions of the unlikely materials they consist of. In Jardim Gramacho, Muniz sought to capture the realities of life in the landfill but also to create "a mirror in which the catadores may see themselves."

Though the images are clearly grounded in the trash of the landfill, they are inspired by the people that struggle to make a life amongst it.

irma portrait photo

View down onto Irma's portrait on the floor. Photo credit: Vik Muniz Studio

The work is not only inspired by the catadores, it also seeks to help them. By selling the artwork at auction, Muniz managed to raise $300,000, all of which was given to the Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG), an organization led by Tiao Santos that organizes and protects the collectors.

Indeed, the entire project—documented in the provocative film Waste Land—became intertwined with the dignity and despair of the catadores.

Originally intending to paint the collectors amidst the trash, Muniz quickly found that—in spite of unsanitary conditions, low pay, and economic uncertainty created by continuous efforts to close the landfill—people living and working in Jardim Gramacho were unwilling to give up their homes.

His work, he realized, could not objectify the catadores, but instead had to be a product of the place and people.

jardim gramacho sepia photo

Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest garbage dump. Photo credit: Vik Muniz Studio

Of course, this transition was not an easy one.

Lucy Walker, director of Waste Land, explains that:

Questions poke through the fabric of the movie as things get messy...Vik and his wife start to argue on-camera about whether the project is hurting the catadores by taking them out of their environment and then, when it's over, expecting them to return

She continues by asking, "should documentary filmmakers interfere with their subjects' could they not?" Muniz's project and Walker's film, clearly, changed the lives of several catadores. The question she seems to be asking is whether or not this change was for the better.

Several years ago, local officials noticed large cracks forming in some of the retaining walls surrounding Jardim Gramacho—a sign that the landfill had exceeded its capacity and had become a threat to the neighborhoods and watersheds around it.

Since then, an effort, spearheaded by COMLURB—the municipal authority in charge of the site—has sought to close the landfill, which would force the catadores to move on. For the catadores, change, it seems, was inevitable.

COMLURB Secretary Marilene Ramos has said that "the responsibility for Gramacho is on all of us who produce the garbage that is dumped there daily." In this case, the environmental responsibility is clear—it is the easily-hidden human responsibility that proves to be more problematic.

Ultimately, the work of Muniz, Walker, and ACAMJG hope to provide options for the people who find a livelihood in others' trash.

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