Ordinarily, when observing portraits, most of us might not think about the potentially transformative relationship that could take place between the artist and her subject. Unless instructed otherwise, we most likely dwell on aesthetic concerns, or, if the work is explicitly religious, then we might expand our approach to it accordingly. However, the potential for a transformative relationship between artist and subject is the foundation of both artist Vik Muniz’s “Pictures of Garbage” and Wasteland, the documentary about the creation of some of the portraits that make up his series.
Wasteland follows renowned Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s visit to and work in Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest garbage dumps in the world. While there, he meets the catadores, people who salvage recyclable materials from the tons and tons of garbage that are deposited there on a daily basis. He photographs and interviews many of the workers and eventually focuses on 7 subjects for his project. With their help, he reconstructs these photographs into larger-than-life portraits made out of the very materials they salvage and the garbage they leave behind. The results are beautifully captivating.
Were Wasteland simply a chronicle of the creation of these works of art, it would be compelling enough. However, director Lucy Walker (who also directed Devil’s Playground) turns her attention to the subjects themselves, the relationships they develop with Vik, and the effects that he and their work together have on them. Walker shows us, both implicitly and explicitly, the ways in which these recyclers (are made to) feel like outsiders from society, even as they undertake work that is beneficial to that society and the world at large. Vik’s work with these catadores brings attention to their efforts, but his cooperation with them in the creation of their portraits offers them a sense of worth and pride that simple public recognition could not provide. As Zumbi put it, “I never imagined I’d become a work of art.”
Yet the film also reveals that these catadores were/are perfectly happy in their life (even though they have their fair share of hardships and difficulties) before Vik came along. In fact, Tiao had already been organizing the workers into an association/union to lobby for better treatment and rights. Some outside observers have speculated that he has a bright political future ahead of him.
Though the film ends with some “happy” endings, it does not overlook the important questions at the heart of Vik’s undertaking. The first question that arises when we see Jardim Gramacho is how long can this go on? How long can humanity keep consuming and wasting? Though the film never brings this up explicitly, its window into Jardim Gramacho shows us that this is only a fraction of what is taking place around the world. As such, a second question should force us to consider the locations of our own Jardim Gramachos and the catadores who inhabit them and spaces like them. In what ways do we ignore those spaces and treat like outsiders the people who make the valuable distinctions between garbage and the recyclable?
Wasteland revels in the potential for art to aid social justice, but it also questions how far this efficacy will go. At the same time, it questions the impact that the catadores can have in the face of cascades of garbage that descend on a seemingly hourly basis? On the other hand, one catadore,Valter, took a different approach that recalls Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep or lost coin. When Vik asked him if his efforts were making any difference, Valter reminded him that 99 is not 100 and that even one recycled can matters. Finally, a lingering question or concern involves the act of objectification that might take place when crating these works of art or this documentary and the consumption of both.
All these issues and questions and the layers of both Walker’s and Vik’s work makes Wasteland an engaging documentary experience for a variety of audiences. In the end, the religious themes of Vik’s larger-than-life portraits remind us that not only can we find beauty in those messy places of life, we might find something of the Divine as well.