Art, Trash, and Dignity

13 June 2010

I recently saw a great documentary film at the Seattle International Film Festival called Waste Land. It's about an art project of Brazilian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz, which took place at the biggest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, just outside of Rio de Janeiro.

The art project was fascinating: Vik Muniz first collaborated with workers in the landfill who pick recyclable materials out of the trash, to make unique photographic portraits of them. Then he projected the photos onto the floor of a warehouse-sized studio and Muniz and the workers together made them into giant mosaics, filling in the outlines using materials gathered from the landfill. Large-scale photographs of the mosaics were made and sold at auction, and the proceeds went back to the workers and their union.

But even more interesting than the art project were the interviews with the workers in the film. They work in an obviously distasteful job -- the film-maker (who was present for the screening and answered questions afterwards) said we should be very glad movies don't convey smell. Many of the workers had been there since they were 10 or 15 years old, and they all had hard-times stories about how they ended up in that job. But at the same time, they showed a great deal of solidarity, dignity, and pride in their work. They've organized themselves into a union, to make sure they receive a fair price from the recyclers who process the items they pick out of the trash, and they treated each other like co-workers (or even family) rather than as competition. And when asked about their job, after saying how disgusting it was, they also spoke about the importance of their work to the environment (keeping recyclables out of the landfill) and pointed out that if not for this job, they would be doing something even worse (dealing drugs, prostitution, etc.).

Think about it: solidarity, dignity, and pride in people who work in a smelly garbage dump. Hmmm.