Every once in a while, an artist comes along who forces us to question our understanding of art. Brazilian-born Vik Muniz and his stunning waste art is one of those creators. His photography is made by creating huge images using one of the world’s most mundane mediums: trash. Muniz was the subject of a documentary called Waste Land, which focused on his brilliant work in Rio de Janeiro’s largest dump, where he made images so detailed and so beautiful, you might forget they were made using nothing but waste.
While journeying back to his family home in Brazil, Muniz visited one of the world’s largest landfills—the now-closed Jardim Gramacho. It’s there that he witnessed the catadores; the people who are paid to sort through the mountains of trash. “These people are at the other end of consumer culture,” Muniz told Time. “I was expecting to see people who were beaten and broken. But they are survivors.”
Rather than painting portraits of these workers, as he’d planned, he worked with the catadores to create portraits using trash. What makes some of these images so astonishing is not only the medium—oil barrels, washing machines, toilet seats—but the sheer scale of the portraits. Some took up entire warehouse floors.
While creating the portraits, many of the catadores became trusted art assistants and began to see themselves in a whole new light. For those witnessing the artworks, it reminds not only of the consequences of waste, but of the people that waste impacts. You can watch Muniz’s journey in the documentary Waste Land.