A documentary is available to watch for free on many places around the internet – Wasteland. It’s a story documenting the journey of an artist working with underprivileged people who work as recyclable pickers in a dump outside of Rio de Jinero.
In Jardim Gramacho, the ‘garbage pickers’ did not pick garbage but picked out recyclable materials from waste and collaborated together to sell these materials to support their lives and families. The pickers were all unique, drawn together by bad luck and the need for money. Each member of the community had a background of misfortune; family debt, divorce, and lifelong poverty. Each member worked hard every day among the stench and sometimes morbid setting of the dumps. Many of them eat from the trash, wear disposed clothing, and bring home books or toiletries that others above them have thrown away. Although this life is frowned upon by many, the pickers of Jardim Gramacho take pride in the long hours of work. This pride led to the foundation of ACMLJG, Associação dos Catadores do Aterro Metropolitano de Jardim Gramacho, an organization started by the pickers.
To Muniz, these people were not as low as dirt like many middle-class people in Brazil perceived them to be. He saw them as people like himself who had distasteful but hard jobs. Muniz admired the culture of the pickers and wanted them to be recognized. He wanted to use their image to sell artwork in order to raise funds for the pickers. Being from a poor Brazilian background himself, he was able to empathize with them. He knew how much they relied on even the smallest amounts of money. He interviewed women and men alike, all disliked the dirty life, but loved putting in hard work for their families and to improve their lives. Muniz wanted to give these people what he thought they deserved, a chance to make life better. He did this through offering a few of the pickers jobs as artists. They made works from projected pictures of their own faces. These images were then recreated with dirt and recyclable materials.
The art project had a huge impact on the lives of the pickers. While working in the clean space of a warehouse on the art project, the pickers developed a new lifestyle for a time. Although they were surrounded by recyclables, the stench was not nearly as strong as it was in their usual workspace. They were introduced to another way of living for a time, some did not want to go back to the trash. Muniz took one member, the president of ACMLJG, to London to watch the auction take place. The piece of art sold for $50,000, bringing the man to tears. This money would go to his people. This culture shock changed how the man saw art and how he saw his own life among the rubbish. Although this culture shock was inspiring, some of Muniz’s peers were worried that it would negatively affect the lives of the pickers. The documentary did not show this happening, instead, the pickers were motivated to change their lives and move out from under the garbage. When given the chance, they took it and ran.
At the end of the film, we see an outro that summarizes what the lives of the pickers that contributed to the artworks were like after the fact. Many had worked hard and achieved in making better lived for themselves. Some had new jobs, others were still hard at work in the garbage. One had died of lung cancer after a life in the garbage. He was remembered by his quote, “99 is not 100”. This is symbolic of the picker culture, it tells the listener not to settle. The pickers didn’t settle after being exposed to a life outside the dump. Muniz gave them a chance to better their lives were no chance existed. One aspect of the pickers culture still remains in each one though, work hard and make life better.