Tiao Santos is the President of the Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho, an organization of pickers of recyclable material located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Gramacho is the world’s largest landfill and the setting for the Academy Award-nominated film “Wasteland,” in which Santos is one of many workers profiled by the artist Vik Muniz. WEEKEND caught up with Santos and his interpreter in the Club Room of 360 State Street on Monday just before the film opened the Environmental Film Festival at Yale.
Q. How has your life changed since appearing in the film?
A. It’s hard to say, really. My life has changed completely in all senses of the word. Not only has my life changed, but the lives of all recyclable material pickers in Brazil have changed [as well]. They now have a value in the society. They do work for the society and their self-esteem has changed as citizens. Now, there’s no more prejudice against the pickers.
Q. How did you become involved in this project with Vik Muniz?
A. I got a call from the company that takes care of the trash in Rio. They said there was a Brazilian artist who wanted to develop art with the trash from Gramacho, and that the money would go back to the pickers. [Vik] showed me some of his art and explained how the project would work. Of course I said yes.
Q. Can you explain the prejudice against the pickers you mentioned earlier?
A. Trash is something people already reprobate. Our work was always seen as marginalized work, on par with drug dealers and the like, as if it wasn’t honorable. That’s why we always want to say we are “pickers of recyclable materials,” not trash pickers. If you say trash pickers, that’s what you become — trash.
Q. How are you looking to further improve the lives of Brazil’s pickers of recyclable material?
A. [Currently,] the pickers pick with their hands, but soon they will pick with machines. I’ve also started Rede Agrega Rio, which means Artwork to Agregate Rio. We’re trying to use art to [give] value to the trash.
Q. In February, you traveled to Los Angeles for the Oscars. How was that experience for you?
A. [In the United States], everything is too distant. There’s too large a gap between the people and the artist. In Brazil we have Carnival, and it celebrates the art of the people. The Oscars is like our Carnival, but it celebrates the elite. I just don’t understand that.