The first time Brazilian-born visual artist Vik Muniz visited Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, he didn't think it possible to last more than five minutes at the site.
The stench from the mountain of trash was overwhelming, recalls Muniz, who says it took all his willpower to keep breakfast down.
But somehow he persevered, and three years later Muniz and his "Pictures of Garbage Series" is the focus of a powerful documentary, Lucy Walker's Waste Land, which has snapped up numerous awards (it's the first film to win audience awards at both Sundance and Berlin film festivals), and was recently short listed for an Academy Award.
Waste Land, which opened last week, follows seven catadores (garbage pickers) whom Muniz uses as the subjects for photographs that are blown up to billboard size, then "painted" with colourful materials picked from the trash. The documentary, co-directed by Walker, Karen Harley and João Jardim, chronicles the creation of the work at a studio in Brazil through to its final destination at a London auction house where the pieces are snapped up for $50,000 (U.S.) - all of which Muniz donated to the catadores to improve their working conditions.
Muniz says it was not easy at first to coax his suspicious subjects to participate. "We had to convince the catadores to do this," says Muniz, whose work has been exhibited worldwide. "In the documentary I appear somewhat pathetically trying to describe how important I am. And that I make money," he says with a laugh. "It felt arrogant. But it was the only message they initially understood."
Over the past 25 years, Muniz, who was born in Sao Paulo but moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in the late 1980s, has experimented with a wide variety of materials including dirt, chocolate syrup and sugar. His decision to focus this time on garbage was born out of his desire to work with a material "that has a tendency to become invisible," he explains.
"We do everything to hide it," says Muniz, referring to the fact that most landfills are in remote locations so as not to offend the eye and nose. "Garbage is not tactile. And the idea of working with such an unlikely material, and also working with such unlikely people, intrigued me.
"You have to realize these people had absolutely no relationship to art. They had never been to galleries, or looked at art books. And even their relationship to their own images was not very formalized. It was rewarding to see their very powerful reaction to the art. It was transformative. It helped them see who they are - and could be."
But that didn't make filming any easier.
"The smell is indescribable, and my first day there I literally sat in the car trying to figure out how I was going to work there," Muniz says. "Garbage is something that defies recognition. And you find yourself gathering information in the rawest possible state - almost a primitive way - because you're not dealing with recognizable substances. Visually, it's a very disturbing place - not because it shocks you - but because you don't have anywhere to put your eye."
"In a way it's purgatorial," continues Muniz, who is currently back in Rio de Janeiro working on a book based on the artwork. "But it's also a very artistic place because whenever you see a person in the middle of that chaos, your eye literally stops."
The British-born Walker, whose previous documentaries include the acclaimed Devil's Playground, Blindsight and Countdown to Zero, agrees that filming Waste Land was one of the most challenging shoots she has yet undertaken. "The smell was overpowering, and the soundman kept almost passing out," says Walker, who graduated from the film program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
"But we quickly were all struck by the fact that the people who live and work at the landfill were having a good time. I remember calling up the producer and saying, 'I can't believe the women, in these bright shorts and earrings, are joking, laughing and collaborating.
"The courage and spirit of the catadores is impressive - more impressive than anyone I've ever met, perhaps. Their dignity, in the midst of all that garbage, was remarkable," Walker says. "I went there expecting to feel pity. I never felt pity."