Waste Land is a 2010 documentary on an artist and his effect on subjects who work as recycle pickers in Brazil’s largest landfill. Vik Muniz, the artist, uses unusual material to replicate his photographs on a large scale, then rephotographs the result. The director is Lucy Walker, with music by Moby.
I love the notion of taking photography beyond photographs so I therefore love Vik Muniz, but he’s also an artist with a heart. Muniz wants to make work that changes peoples’ lives for the better. In the case of the Waste Land documentary, he wants to use garbage as a medium and wants to better the lives of the people who work with garbage. Vik photographs them in classical poses, projects the image on the floor of a warehouse, and the pickers place material to match the values and lines of the photos. The final photographs are to be auctioned off with the money going to the pickers. One of the pieces actually hangs in the collection of the Phoenix Art Museum.
It would be easy to do a biographical sketch of an interesting artist but because of the topic, and because of the various effects Muniz’s good intentions actually have on the pickers, there is an enormous depth to the film which I can only compare to Born Into Brothels- another documentary about a photographer who changes the lives of her subjects. One woman, Iris, talks about how she lost her song at age 3 to pneumonia and hadn’t seen her daughter in 6 years, and was begging to remain in the studio rather than return to work at the landfill. Behind the scenes, you can see the discussion between Vik, his wife, and his artist partner where everyone but Vik is concerned they might be screwing up these peoples’ lives by inflating expectations. At the start of the film, the group had expected the workers to be miserable, only to see they were joking and thought of their job as environmentally important; the truth turned out to be more emotionally complex. Vik thinks it would be a good thing if the pickers were opened up to the potential their lives could have.
Could someone trying to do good actually cause harm? Can art change lives, and should it?
Waste Land is currently showing on Netflix.