Saturday, January 8th, 2011

The Benevolent Ringmaster: Vik Muniz and his portraits in garbage

Directed by Lucy Walker

Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho in WASTE LAND, an Arthouse Films release 2010. Photograph by Fabio Ghivelder, courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio

Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho in WASTE LAND, an Arthouse Films release 2010. Photograph by Fabio Ghivelder, courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio

Vik Muniz cuts a sympathetic figure as the star of Lucy Walker’s documentary film, Waste Land, which screened in New York last fall at the Angelika Film Center and will be available on video this coming spring.  His playful artistry has garnered him wealth and fame, and led him to the pursuits of the virtuous rich: philanthropy and social change.  Rather than simply writing a check, Muniz has embarked on a high-wire project of social reform through the transformative power of art.

Walker’s film charts the production of Muniz’s latest series, “Pictures of Garbage.”A consummate draughtsman, Muniz is known for re-creating images recognizable from art history (Warhol’s Marilyns, past masters’ Greek myths) using unlikely materials such as dirt, diamonds, chocolate syrup, and plastic toys, with a photograph of the completed image always the end result.  On this occasion, Muniz employed garbage pickers from the Jardim Gramacho landfill in Brazil to help him create large portraits of themselves out of refuse collected from the site and return the proceeds from the sale of the resulting artworks to the workers’ cooperative. The artist’s jovial demeanor and idealism carry him through the film like a benevolent ringmaster, under circumstances where a man with more self-doubt or heightened situational awareness might crumble under the moral ramifications of his stated vision;“to change the lives of a group of people [using] the same material that they deal with every day.”

Vik Muniz, Marat (Sebastião), from Pictures of Garbage, 2008. Digital C-print. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Vik Muniz, Marat (Sebastião), from Pictures of Garbage, 2008. Digital C-print. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

The film follows a group of catadores (pickers) who pluck recyclable materials from the dump, reselling it to eke out a living.  In Brazil catadores are among the most socially marginalized; coming from backgrounds where the only other options are the drug trade or prostitution, they have chosen trash. Though they take pride in their work and are quick to describe its environmental merits, it is unsanitary, unsavory, and deeply unpleasant. 7,000 tons of garbage arrive at Jardim Gramacho daily from Rio de Janeiro and surrounding areas. The stench is unbearable. At night there are fires, completing the illusion that this place is hell on earth. Though catadores can earn double the minimum daily wage, the hazards are extreme. Injuries from the garbage trucks are common, as is finding headless corpses among the trash (casualties of the drug and gang wars nearby). Suelem, who has worked at the landfill since childhood, tells a harrowing story of finding a dead baby. Then, there are the leprosy outbreaks. A worker named Isis states it simply: “There is no future here.”

The camera captures the squalor beautifully, and the catadores are quirky and quotable, easily lending themselves to the stereotype of the honest yet simple laborer popularized in the 19th century by Courbet, Van Gogh and many others. It is in this vein that Muniz casts the catadores – as in Picasso’s Woman Ironing and Millet’s The Sower.

Early in the film, Muniz asks his studio manager Fabio whether it will be difficult to collaborate with the catadores, fearing they might be criminals and drug addicts. “It would be much harder to think that we are not able to change the life of these people,” Fabio responds.  The unconscious hubris of this statement rankles in the background of the film.

The heavy responsibility inherent in changing lives becomes clear to Muniz and Fabio as the project approaches completion. Fabio articulates this concern saying, “They totally forgot about Gramacho. They don’t want to go back. At the beginning I had the impression, and I think now that this is wrong, that they were happy there.” As the portraits are finished, photographed, and dismantled we begin to see the catadores dissolving in tears as the realization dawns that they must now return to the landfill – their temporary employment at Muniz’s studio at an end. Isis weeps as her portrait is completed, confessing that she implored Fabio to give her a job at the studio, so she wouldn’t have to return to the dump. The catadores thank Muniz over and over.

Tiaõ, the handsome and charismatic union leader, watches as his portrait (fittingly styled after David’s The Death of Marat) is sold at Phillips auction house in London. Surrounded by contemporary art built upon ironies that have no place in his life, he is overwhelmed and breaks down, knowing the proceeds ($64,097) will fund the pickers’ co-op he founded.

Vik Muniz takes the photo of Tiao as Marat in WASTE LAND, an Arthouse Films release 2010. Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio

Vik Muniz takes the photo of Tiao as Marat in WASTE LAND, an Arthouse Films release 2010. Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio

Since the film premiered, several of the catadores have found work outside the landfill, and the proceeds from the sale of the artworks have paid for numerous benefits for the workers’ co-op: a new truck, computers, a business training program. Those who modeled for portraits and helped to construct them each received their own photograph as well as monetary compensation. Some returned to Jardim Gramacho, begging the question posed by Muniz’s wife Janaina, “If you shake them up…show them life can be different….what can they do with that afterwards?” The dilemma is as complicated as the workers’ reality. Muniz takes responsibility, saying he hopes they come up with a plan to get out of Gramacho, and that it is hard for him to imagine doing much damage to these people to whom so much has been done already. It is that uncharacteristic lapse of imagination on the artist’s part that gives the film its uneasy subtext: there is altruism, but is there also inadvertent exploitation?

Unrated. English and Portuguese with English subtitles. Available March 29, 2011 from iTunes,, and Waste Land will be broadcast on PBS in April 2011 – check local listings.

Vik Muniz, Isis (Woman Ironing), from Pictures of Garbage, 2008. Digital C-print.  Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

click to enlarge

  • Jessi

    I just saw this on netflix and it was life changing as a viewer. Please, see this film.

  • Julia Douthwaite

    Why do you say that the portrait of Tiaõ was “fittingly styled after David’s The Death of Marat”? The more I learn from Vik Muniz’s project about Tiao Santos, the less sense this connection makes. Unlike Jean-Paul Marat, Tiao Santos received a minimal education which he continued through his own will and desire to learn. (Marat was educated as a medical doctor and for a time had a flourishing practice among the wealthy; his “man of the people” image was largely an invention.) Santos is seen as a good father, caring, warm-hearted and tender: we see him walking hand-in-hand with his young daughter and he stokes her dreams of going to school to become a psychologist. He is also a good son: we see him telephoning his mother in tears of joy after the London art opening. (Marat appeared to be estranged from his family. He had no children: a fact that used against him in the war over his Pantheonization in 1795.) The final credits mention that “a lot of people now believe in Tiao and look to him as a leader; some dream that one day he could become president.” (And Marat?) I am currently working on modern-day reappropriations of Marat in popular culture, and curious to know if you have other thoughts on this portrait. It seems kind of a mixed message to me.

    • M. Ward


      I thought you made some excellent points about the odd pairing of Santos and Marat. I, too, was unsure where the connection and confused as to why Tiao, depicted as Marat, is so often described as being “fittingly” so.

      However, I found an insightful article with detailed explanation as to the context of the idea for the themed photograph and how it inadvertently came to be. Seems it was put together on a whim when the Muniz spotted two pickers carrying a bathtub one day during filming–flashing a mental image of the bathtub pictured in “The Death of Marat.”

      For a full explanation, check out the original article at:

      I think you will find that it fully answers the questions you and I both seemed to have. : )

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  • Bryan Murphy

    I watched the film recently and I disagree. Yeah, he sent alot of them back to the dump, but he gave them a glimpse of the outside. Shook them up and with his job training, gives them the oppurtunity to move on.

    I respectfully disagree.