Vik Muniz is well acquainted with the truth behind the line, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The influential Brazilian artist is best known for his photographs of eclectic found materials (think tomato sauce, diamonds, magazine clippings, and chocolate syrup) arranged to [reminisce] historical works and scenes from pop culture. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1961, Muniz grew up relatively poor, and he has begun using his artistic success and resulting platform to raise awareness of global issues affecting the lower class. In Pictures of Garbage, his intricate construction of simple images communicates the complexity behind unassuming individuals, the hardships they endure to survive, and the power of art and human connection to spur them to begin again.
To make the series of images called Pictures of Garbage, Vik Muniz travelled to the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There, he began speaking to the catadores, the people who spend their days working in the dump, about their lives and what it’s like working in a landfill. The job of the catadores, or collectors, is to pick recyclable materials from the truckloads of garbage that get delivered to Jardim Gramacho every day. At the end of the day, the workers get paid by the pound for whatever materials they’ve collected; they typically earned about $25 each day at the time Vik spoke to them. Though the catadores inevitably leave their jobs each day smelling like the landfill, every person Vik spoke to took pride in their work. Each piece of glass or plastic they pick out of the landfill is one less thing clogging the surface of the Earth. As one veteran catadore explains, “99 is not 100” (Walker). Even if only one of every 100 pieces of trash is recyclable, that piece is one less thing clogging the surface of the Earth.
Muniz recruited a group of willing catadores to pose for photographs reminiscent of famous artworks. Upon printing the photos, he selected those he felt were strongest and worked with their subjects to recreate the photos on a large scale. The artists arranged recyclable material on the floor of a warehouse to “draw” the lines and values of their own faces, becoming good friends in the process. Muniz photographed those recreations, then, accompanied the catadores, took the photos to auction in London. One photo sold for $50,000, and Muniz donated his profits back to the catadores union. Now, most of the images from Pictures of Garbage are on display in Rio de Janeiro. When the portraits’ subjects saw the exhibit, for many, it was the first time they had been to a museum.
After their work on Pictures of Garbage, all the involved catadores changed their lives for the better. Previously, the world scorned and ignored them, and they came to associate themselves with the garbage they spent their days sorting. Their art making exposed them to the possibilities of the world, and seeing the impact of their stories and faces on others like them helped them own their humanity and individuality.
sources and background:
Kino, Carol. “Where Art Meets Trash and Transforms Life.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/arts/design/24muniz.html.
“Vik Muniz.” Artnet, www.artnet.com/artists/vik-muniz/.
Walker, Lucy, director. Waste Land: An Art Collaboration in the World’s Largest Garbage Dump. Contemporary Arts Media (Distributor), 2010.