A charismatic fellow with a beaming smile, but eyebrows cast just low enough to betray his humble heart. At times a daydreaming Mercutio, when discovering from the detritus and cast-offs from Rio society, books he would keep for himself. While the other young bucks jest at his bourgeois attempts. Tião retorts that they miss out on the wealth of stories and knowledge to be had, in finding these gems amongst the garbage at jardim Gramacho where they all work as catadores (collectors).
Vik Muniz: Marat (Sebastião), 2008
Seen in panorama, one of the world’s largest garbage dumps on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, is sprawling. Hundreds of collectors appear like worker ants crawling over its hills, picking and sorting from it, all that is recyclable – it’s a grimy, labour intensive job. They wear gloves and layered clothing as protection against the dirt in which they delve each day; as the dumpster trucks arrive and unload, they keenly jump on each fresh pile to make a start.
Despite no mechanisation, Brazil has one of the highest rates for recycling certain materials in the world; cardboards and cans. They owe this to the fact that there are enough impoverished people to carry out this kind of menial work and recognise the economic value in trading these materials. The local government had received financing to build an official plant for collection and sorting, but this never happened. Falling to the founding catadores, and now Tião to create a co-operative to organise their work; both protecting their rights to operate as catadores and ensure the prices they trade for. Despite his sometimes intangible pre-occupation with the arts, of his work he is very matter of fact – “we do not collect garbage, we collect recyclable materials, garbage is not recyclable”. The materials and the prices they can be exchanged for, roll-off his tongue. He speaks with deft and smiles with pride as environmental stewards and at what they have achieved from basic means; also a medical clinic and learning centre for the catadores.
Waste Land, the 2010 documentary, follows the renowned Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz as he returns to the land of his birth to broadcast the story of the catadores at jardim Gramacho. Inspired by the stories of individuals, he gets them to collaborate in his art project. By using the materials of their collection to build portraits of them-selves. The money raised from auction of the subsequent photographic series “Pictures of garbage” would go back to the co-operative.
In imagining his own portrait, Tião asks for a rendition of Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat” which he once saw and since impressed on his brain. There is a particularly moving moment, towards the end, when he experiences the rarified world of a London auction house, when his portrait fetches $50,000 that he is fleetingly overwhelmed with tears. The eventual tears that come from spent years, carrying the weight of so many upon his shoulders, of the grind of the impoverished and that all the smiles in the past masked all this without any expectation for earthly glories.
Waste Land is an absolute triumph in the heartfelt and generously uplifting. It is remarkable, that Tião had dreamt of art and it came into his life. In a collaboration between life and art – the opportunity given by Vik Muniz, he says they have achieved recognition and dignity for the catadores beyond his imagination.