“Independent Lens” focused on the work of Vic Muniz.
The photographer was raised in poverty. He was cared for by his grandmother as his father worked nights, his mother worked days. Caught up in a street fight he was shot in the leg as a lad. He lived with his family in a crowded area of Sao Paulo. His father literally built their home. His father said that originally they had no running water, no sewer, he said “we had difficulty but dignity”. 'Dignity' is a reoccurring word through the show.
Vic went to Jardim Gramacho. It is the largest trash dump in the world. His goal, to take the trash and change the lives of the pickers with it. He needs a team of subjects. He found them. Burrowing, climbing, sorting through the stinking trash, a brave band of ‘pickers’. They look for anything to recycle. Garbage arrived, they swarmed, they analyzed the financial situation of the garbage thrower. PVC is in their words “filet mignon”. They tell Vic they choose to pick rather than to traffic drugs or prostitute themselves. If Vic felt it he showed no sign of revulsion at the work or the smell.
Jelem, a beautiful young woman, picks her food from the garbage trucks. Irma, a trained restaurant cook, cooks foods that “the boys find” in the garbage, even meat that is not past the expiration date. In the rain, the mud, in the midst of the garbage she prepares restaurant quality food for the pickers from whatever presents itself to be cooked. Under her watch none of the pickers go hungry.
The pickers live close by in shanty town, in hovels, built from left over and discarded wood, and other materials. Rent is $8.00 per week. One young woman lives there when she works. Her mother’s home has no real walls, junk, trash, but there is a TV. She lives with her mother and her own children most weekends. Her mother cares for her children and her siblings and their children, allowing those who can to work. She moved in with her partner when she was 12, she had 2 children and at 19 is expecting her 3rd. Her partner offers no financial support. He is a drug dealer. She has few choices. Instead of prostituting herself she sorts trash for recycling. Her work has integrity.
Vic photographs various pickers, he then projected a huge rendition of the photograph onto the floor. Pickers are hired to fill in the photograph with garbage, and dirt for shading. One startling photograph, of a mother and her two children haunts the viewer. In the midst of the project the leader of the team was robbed at gun point. He was relieved of $6,000, the entire pay for his team. He was obviously shaken, at the point of tears he wondered if his work was worth it. Another truck arrived, and he climbed aboard and picked. Time for contemplation is short.
The pickers chosen to work in the studio relished their work. They joked at how pampered they were becoming and that they were now artists. Isis, working on the huge photographs said through tears, “I don’t see myself as trash any more, it changed a lot for me". She watched her son die, her husband took her daughter and abandoned her.
The photographer and his team become embroiled in a discussion over the ethics of their work. The pickers were happy picking, now they have worked on the photographs in the studio, they do not want to go back to the mountains of trash. They discuss the ethics of putting the pickers on the plane to be with their photographs. Did they damage them? A female team member says “People are fragile”. Can they now go back to the trash? Do they need to go back? Can they see the possibility of changing their lives?
Vic takes photographs of their garbage emboldened work and consigns these photographs to an auction. This is seen to be a bold move. The first photograph of the team leader, Tiao is offered, it sold for 28,000 pounds ($50.000 US). He cried. He said “it is worth it”. Through tears the leader said he has a dream. He said no one believed in him, no one, but because of the experience he began to believe in himself. He wanted to form an association within the recycling industry, and make real changes. He believed their humble work had intrinsic integrity.
When another of the female pickers joined the project she said “I started to see myself as a person, not as a mule”. She ended her exploitive marriage. Preparing to attend a museum displaying their photographs one of the young women washes her hair with cold water in buckets, seemingly unaware of how basic and deplorable her conditions are.
Rio de Janerio displayed their photographs. The exhibition broke records all over Brazil and traveled the world. Vic poured the funds back to the pickers of Jardim Gramacho. He presented the subjects with their own large framed copies of their portraits. Irma's family just gazed at it as if they were watching a riveting special on television.
Tiao was stunned as the efforts of his team began to be recognized as a viable part of the recycling industry. He began picking at the age of 11. His reading material as an adult was rescued from the trash. One book had to be dried behind his refrigerator by the heat emitted from the engine. He has formed his association, and became its President. Now he believes in himself and so do many others. Tiao expresses his Christian faith. The photographer does not share his faith. The poverty struck picker becomes theologian to the wealthy photographer.
From the proceeds Irma was able to buy her way off the dump. She worked in an eatery preparing food, but she missed the comrarderie of her 'picking' colleagues and returned to picking.
Vic summarized the experience. An unintended consequence was that the pickers changed him as much as his work changed them. “I did not count on being as involved with the people as I was…I thought I could just go there and do my work”. He had not factored in the human side. He was sobered to think that many of the pickers started life low middle class as he did. A reversal happened that meant they ended up living and working in the garbage. He realized how fragile his grasp on his own finances was. The pickers inspired him. He said he went there to help them but “I am being helped more than they are. They are beautiful, great people.” Can there be a missionary, an aid worker, a volunteer who has worked among the world’s poor in the world's most delorable conditions that has not come to the same conclusion?
The thoughtful cannot help being struck by the complexity of the team, the varied backgrounds, the determination of each member to live “with dignity”. Vic, I thank you for bringing these resilient souls to our attention, and for your respectful presentation of their stories. They chose to dig through trash refusing to prostitute or drug traffic. They smelled of rotting garbage at day’s end but they had their internal dignity. The pickers are part of the army of the invisible poor to the tourists in Brazil. Yet atop their mountain ranges of garbage they had their humor, their pain, their curiosity, their struggles, their potential, their hopes and dreams and their dignity. They are not forgotten. They are the ones the christian Lord identifies with. He stands beside them, and declares that whatever we do for the least of these in men’s eyes, we do for Him.
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