The successful art photographer Vik Muniz works with natural materials to create his portraits. This film follows him as he returns from his adopted home in Brooklyn to his birthplace Rio de Janeiro, with the intention of working on a project using garbage. There, on the Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest garbage landfill situated on a coral island near the city, Muniz meets the catadores, the garbage pickers who sift through thousands of tons of trash in their search for recyclable material. What begins as a search for artistic inspiration quickly develops into a deeper level of social engagement - for the artist, for the filmmaker Lucy Walker, and for the audience.
Having worked himself up and out of Rio’s favelas, Muniz is familiar with both the desperate situation in which the catadores find themselves and the hopeful attitude they adopt, in spite of everything. He decides to give something back of the success he has enjoyed, and embarks on work for a series of large-scale portraits in garbage, with an eclectic group of catadores serving as both model and co-creator. Muniz manages something that modern art rarely does: he changes their lives. Just as the garbage is transformed into art, these human rejects gain a new sense of self-worth.