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Vik Muniz's Garbage-Art Transforms A Waste Land Into A Nominee & Award Winner

02/22/2011 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Brazilian conceptualist Vik Muniz has been making remarkable photo-constructs and garnering accolades within the fine art world for years including such places as New York's Guggenheim Museum. But recently the artist has landed squarely in the public eye so that he is making an impact far beyond the sometime peculiar and opaque world of exhibition art.

First there was the release of Waste Land, a film made by director Lucy Walker that documented Muniz making art through photo/sculptures of the poor recyclers from Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro; he collaborates with the brilliant catadores to make images that combine portraits with recyclable materials.

Then there was its nomination for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar.

Now Muniz has been included as one of the 12 honorees for the just-announced 3rd annual Character Approved Awards presented by the USA Network.

These honorees represent the highest expression of the cutting edge of various creative disciplines including: Grant Achatz (Food); Dennis Crowley & Naveen Selvadurai (New Media); Davis Guggenheim (Film); Prabal Gurung (Fashion); Walter Hood (Architecture); Janelle Monáe (Music); Nicole Krauss (Writing); fashionista Blake Mycoskie (Giving); Emily Pilloton (Design); and Lily Rabe (Theatre). He will be one of this dozen featured in a USA Network special about the award winners to be aired March 8th, 2011.

Waste Land came into being when producer Angus Ansley introduced documentarian Walker (who had done Countdown To Zero) to Muniz. When the three came to the Paley Center to screen the film, Muniz talked about its creation before an audience including this writer. The following quotes come from that discussion.

Q: Did you know that the portraits were going to be these huge, massive pieces based on the recyclables when you started this project or did that evolve afterwards?

VM: About six years ago the idea was to work with something that we try to hide all the time. Garbage is the part of your history you don't want your family to know about. We went to another garbage dump which actually appears in the film -- the one where Suelem's mother lives. We thought Suelem left her children with her mother because it was a better place for them to live, and once we went there, found it was much worse than Gramacho.

There were people guarding piles of garbage with machine guns, so we thought it wasn't a safe place to work. We knew we could do images with that kind of junk -- it would be easier to do it with garbage and to do it with larger objects -- but the iconography is all work-inspired, based on labor because when you arrive at Gramacho the first thing that really shocks you is the amount of human activity.

Q: How long did it take you between the first time you went to Gramacho and feeling that you're going to be able to make something out of it?

VM: There was a symbiosis going on with the film too. Because the film was dependent on my being there and working with them, there were some times when we couldn't do anything. Even as the project developed, Lucy had these very cinematic ideas that had nothing to do with making my own photographs.

She would say things like, "Why don't you do that in the garbage dump?" For her it would be beautiful having it 55 meters high on ground that was completely unstable and if I fell from that and died it will be great -- the film would be much better... But I wouldn't be telling the story. We would go back and forth and say, "That's not going to work."

For each one of the images, [it had its own circumstance.] Some portraits were easier, some harder, but it takes about two weeks for each drawing to be made.

Q: How did you two meet and decide to collaborate?

VM: Angus wanted to do a film about my work, like an artist documentary. I hate artist documentaries and had already made one. He wanted to do that but then sent some films that Lucy had made and one thing that was remarkable was how she managed to sort of disappear when she was filming. I thought this could be cool, like an invisible filmmaker, like a surveillance camera that follows you around.

When we met in New Castle I told her about this garbage thing that I was doing and she told me about the Fresh Kills story and I was thinking maybe we could do one body of work from the beginning to the end. She was always like "Don't do anything until I get there. Don't do anything."

Q: From when you went there to the first portrait how long did it take?

VM: About two months once we had the people in place. I've done that quite automatically, as you can see. You just have to come up with an idea of how to make these things and once we do anybody can do it.

When I started making art, I wanted to impress people with what I knew, with what I could do with my hands and everything, but [doing it] after 20 years these things are not important. You stop trying to talk too much and start listening, listen to people that work with you, and then suddenly you start to have a public.

Then you start interacting with the public, and this for me was very important because it was breaking in with him to make the work with me. In most parts people have no contact whatsoever with art. If after 20 years I start raising some questions in my mind about is this real, this art thing, or is this something that I do as my job?

Sometimes things become a little bit automatic and you start doubting yourself. These people I think they talk about transformation, how it changed their lives; my life changed radically by the project because they showed me that this is real. People get involved in an art project, go to an art studio and work on the picture of themselves and they are not used to seeing big pictures of themselves, for one thing.

Most of them they only have access to images of themselves from a cell phone screen that they find in the garbage. And all of this is done with a sort of an economy of means that is just about things that are there. For me it was really pretty amazing to be a part of this process.

Q: What was the smell like?

VM: A producer in Brazil -- a girl from São Paulo -- said, "Maybe we should use masks." I said, "Oh yeah, they're going to love us walking around." And she also wanted me to walk in the community in Gramacho, with a guy carrying a weapon. The guy had a handgun; those guys had big guns. She said it was to protect the camera. I was like, "I don't care about the camera."

It's surprising when you get there. This should have been a scratch and sniff movie. The first five minutes in Gramacho is really overwhelming because all of your senses are being attacked. Visually too, because your eyes move and see fragments of things you recognize but not quite, so it's very artistic. Your eyes are moving, then there's the smell, and the noise is unbearable.

The trucks and fumes of the methane gas are everywhere. After a half hour you get used to it but you just smell it again when you go to the south side of Rio where you don't smell it in the air but smell it on you. It permeates your skin.

I took the longest showers of my life after every time I visited Gramacho. It affects the personality of the catadores. They always dress really well, they're very sharp, and when they go out they always wear a lot of perfume because they're very conscious of the possibility of having the smell.

I had so much prejudice, I was so ignorant, and when you get there everybody's making jokes and half of it is a survival instinct. Like if we're here in this hellish place we have to at least convince ourselves that this is good and we're proud of doing it. But they do it and it works because of the working environment that they have.

I've seen bureaucratic immigration offices or social security offices and they should learn from these people because they have a sense of humor, they are joking, they're making the best of it. That surprised me. I made seven photographs from 3,000 and we could have picked any of them and they would have come out to be interesting stories.

Q: Was there any resentment from the individuals not chosen as subjects?

VM: They resented not being picked for a while because we asked Tiao [one of the subjects and a leader in the community] to help us decide which ones we were going to focus on, and we had like 25 or 30 to begin with. Some of them emerged, I wouldn't say because they had better stories, but we had a better interaction with them; they were more appealing to work with. There's a point in the film that I say to Tiao, "I'm a great artist."

It was very hard to convince them of what we were doing, to actually ask them stop doing what you're doing and come do this art thing. We had to be persuasive. About two weeks ago the film was featured in the Rio film festival and we had an idea of actually showing the film in Gramacho to the entire community, but that wouldn't make any sense.

We told the people in the film that they could bring their family, bring everybody to the red carpet screening at the Rio Film Festival, so we had like 65 catadores with their families. It was amazing to be there with them watching it. The ones that weren't in it were equally touched by the film because it's talking about them.

Since the film ended, the photographs have been produced and displayed in museums. They've been pretty much everywhere -- China, Japan -- and the sales of the numbered editions, they were small editions, the entire money went through [the community organization].

They got a truck, everything they needed to be able to sustain the crisis. The prices of recyclables went down eight fold during the last crisis, and they were able to stay afloat. But most importantly, since the movie ended we just did a display of the photographs and it brought so many people into the discourse of what's going to happen to the catadores.

Gramacho is the last landfill that allows people in. Brazil is the leading nation in recycling due to its poverty. There are people there surviving from what they find in the garbage. A few months ago the first law obliging the states and cities to separate garbage, like you do in America, was passed.

So there will be a lot of changes in the recycling industry in Brazil, and what's great about what's happened with the photographs, and I hope it continues happening with the film, is that the class of the catadores became more visible, and they became the obvious choice for the workforce that's going to move.

These people are amazingly gifted; they can recognize 10 different types of plastic just by the noise it makes. They are the obvious choice for people who are going to lead the workforce for recycling in Brazil. With the sale of the photographs, I matched funds with the Coca Cola Institute to create a business plan that we're actually teaching.

We started with 200 cooperatives of recycling and now it's going nationwide. They can really use help dealing with money because they don't know how to do that, and it's really changing the way these people live. I make these photographs and all of a sudden...

João has a joke because he called me and said, "Vik, this magazine, they're calling here asking me about art. What do I tell them?"

I said, "You're on your own man, because all these people are calling me asking me about garbage."

All of a sudden I'm completely involved in this environmental thing, which is social and environmental at the same time, and I'm very excited to be doing this. And as I said at one point in the film, this is just the beginning.

Now I look at the film, it was prophetic; it was just the beginning. It's becoming bigger and bigger and I just hope with the film and with your enthusiasm we can make it bigger and bigger so we can really affect change for catadores in Brazil and worldwide, because they're everywhere.

For other stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com