Editor's note: Ed Burtynsky stuns me. He is not only one of the world's most noted photographers, and arguably the most gifted at showing the true impact of our economy on the planet, he is also a truly great guy (and a Worldchanging board member and staunch supporter). The documentary about his work, Manufactured Landscapes, is a must-see and recently won a Genie award. It is in many ways the more lyrical sister of An Inconvenient Truth. You can see a video of some of Ed's work here.
We haven't spoken as much about Ed or his work here as we might. Mostly, this has been from an effort to avoid the obvious conflicts of interest. But Ed's work is important and worldchanging, so when COLLECTIONS magazine offered us the opportunity to run this substantial interview by Jeremy Finkelstein, we jumped at the opportunity to bring a third-party view of Ed's ideas to Worldchanging readers. --Alex
From the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh to China's Three Gorges Dam, photographer Edward Burtynsky has traveled the globe, capturing on film the degradation of the environment at the hands of industry. His work as a visual medium transcends the barriers of language and is heralded for its ability to draw in an audience, forcing them to make the connection between society's desire for prosperity and the suffering this exacts upon the environment.
Most recently, Mr. Burtynsky's project in China was captured on the big screen in the critically acclaimed Manufactured Landscapes. Already, the film has won Best Canadian Feature at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and a 2007 Genie award for Best Documentary.
COLLECTIONS' Jeremy Finkelstein met up with the celebrated artist at his Toronto office to talk about his work, the environment, and how he is using his work to effect change.
COLLECTIONS: You've been photographing industrial landscapes for over two decades. How has your work changed your view of the world?
Edward Burtynsky: One aspect that's been consistent throughout my work is that I've always chosen to target specific landscapes which demonstrate the largest expression of the incursion of industry on the land. For instance, if I am photographing quarries, I'll find out where the largest quarries in the world are and plan my trips accordingly. And I think that bearing witness to these transformed landscapes, year after year, has allowed me to recognize that something is changing. I mean, we've always taken from the land, but never on this scale. The speed and scale have changed. I don't think many people realize how rapidly the world is changing and how technology is allowing us to scale up on a level that was unimaginable even a hundred years ago.
C: Certainly there is some disconnect between our habits and their impact the planet. Are you finding that your work is helping to eliminate this disconnect or do you find that your method of beautifying the tools and legacy of industry is counter productive?
EB: I don't know that I'm necessarily 'beautifying'. Some do refer to the images as taking something that would normally be considered ugly and making it beautiful; but I'm not sure beautiful is the right word, and I've always had some resistance to that sentiment in that 'beautiful' has a very strong cultural connotation. We all have a value system and a system of aesthetics, but through my work I'm trying to find a universal resonance. What I've often felt about photography as a visual language is that it transcends the barriers of the spoken word.
A visual language should be something that is transportable across different cultures without translation. And I think that in a kind of Jungian collective consciousness, there's a way to tap into the kinds of imagery that we as a human species respond to. So I think that someone from Pau Pau, New Guinea who may not have seen many pictures will still see something in the landscape and be able to read it because that landscape is so primal to our existence… it's our habitat. We may have moved our habitat to urban centres, but we're still connected to the planet. It is still our home. So, my impulse has been to draw a person in and make them stop and look at the picture; it wasn't to make a 'beautiful' picture.
Now, while I don't think I've set out to beautify the landscape, I have set out to make it digestible and visually compelling. 'Do I think that it's had a negative or positive affect?' I think the affect has been positive. Certainly my work is more of an open narrative and it is open to interpretation, but it still leads you to a certain spot. You still realize that these are man's marks… that this is man's activity on the landscape. And that ultimately raises the question, 'who are we and what is our collective value system that has allowed us to work on this scale?'
C: Your work in China lends visual form to the transformation of the country and is highlighted by some shocking images as it relates to coal yards and the three gorges dam. Do you feel these images permit the viewer to point to China in lieu of looking within, or does this body of work spark a personal call to action?
EB: Certainly the work is not about wagging my finger at China and saying 'you're the problem'. If they've got a gun, we gave it to them, and ultimately we're implicated in that. But I think it goes without saying that we cannot deal with the problems that we are dealing with globally without addressing China. China has to be a part of the conversation, as does most of Asia. Out of the world's 6.5 billion, they represent 3 billion; and those 3 billion are trying to come up to our standard of living. It's insane to think we can ignore that.
We also have to look at how we can help emerging markets avoid the mistakes we've made. In Canada, we can pull our weight and reduce our carbon footprint by 50%; but our total output isn't even 2% of the world's output on carbon. China's is going to be 25%; the United States' is going to be 25%. Somehow those need to be dealt with because we cannot work in isolation… climate change and environmental degradation is a global problem.
C: You raised the point of the Canadian footprint. As you know, we're currently tapping into the Albertan oil sands. Do you have any lessons to pass on from your experience in China as we begin the industrialization of Alberta's landscape?
EB: What's consistent with China and Alberta is the speed at which they're both evolving, and you can't control things if they're moving that fast. With a 10% growth like China's, it's very hard to keep the checks and balances in place for whether the environment is being harmed or not, whether employees are getting their fair share or not, whether systems are being built in a safe and reliable way… all these things are gone to the wind when you start moving at that speed. I think Alberta is moving at that speed. In fact, we've already started hearing of the 'on-the-ground' types of problems in Alberta. For instance, small businesses are failing because no one can find employees at lesser wages when the same person can get $30 an hour to stand with a shovel in the oil sands.
But what I think is a bigger and broader issue is what's going to happen to Alberta itself. Alberta is on the further edges of the Boreal Forest, and this forest means to the earth and its atmosphere what the Amazon means. So in Canada we are custodians of this really important lung for the world. But the proposals that are on the table for the development of the oil sands have dissected the province into microscopic chunks to the point where a number of animals who require a certain distance from human habitation will never find it again.
As well, the oil sands are the single largest contributor of carbon emissions for Canada. And what I think is often misunderstood about the oil sands is that over the next 12 to 15 years, if nothing changes in the way we deal with carbon emissions, the rest of Canada could lead carbon free lives, and we would still be out of compliance with Kyoto. I don't know how many Canadians recognize this dilemma. So while Alberta may be keeping us buoyant financially, it is also keeping us dependant as a resource economy… and there's a price to be paid for being a resource economy.
C: You've recently come back from Chile. As an artist, how do you develop a new theme for a project?
EB: That changes all the time. My work is a compendium of ideas or places that say something about our world; and I'm trying to continually add to that body of work. In Chile, for instance, I was photographing a saltpetre mine in the Atacama Desert, the driest region on the planet. The last recorded rainfall in the area where I was shooting was fifty years ago. It's like being on Mars. There's no life. There's nothing.
So I went to photograph this abandoned mine which was recently established as a UNESCO site. And it's interesting because it's a story of how technology can impact a whole town – this was a town of about 4,000 people - and a whole industry. The town is still there, but its livelihood and that whole industry got wiped out overnight because a German scientist figured out how to synthetically make saltpetre in a lab. So within four or five years, all of the mines around the world collapsed, and this mine was the biggest one.
C: Your work was the subject of the recent documentary Manufactured Landscapes. In the film, you raise the point that we come from nature; but your photographs show little of what we would consider a natural environment. In your opinion, as a species have we severed our connection with nature?
EB: What I find interesting is that the idea of nature was only recently introduced in the human vocabulary. The early romantics came up with it because they recognized the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was a reaction to industry. They recognized the dehumanizing effect of industry on the landscape and I think the word 'nature' was derived because it was something outside of industry. We call that 'nature' and we call that 'industry', and it was a kind of clinging on to that idea knowing that it would be severely tested against this new machine called the Industrial Revolution. What's interesting, as well, is when Europeans first came to North America, the Native Americans never had a word for nature. There was no need, because they never saw themselves as something outside of it.
Today, human beings are still very much a part of nature with the same instincts of survival, but in our current urban setting it takes on different manifestations. I still feel we are a part of the natural order; we're just defying it, thinking we're outside of it… which is a very dangerous place to go.
C. Was it a challenge applying your photographs to a different medium as you did for Manufactured Landscapes?
EB: Jennifer Baichwal, the director, had already worked with photographers and had the experience to translate a fixed visual medium to a motion picture medium, bridging those two worlds. What I think the film did successfully that the still image cannot do is lay down the context from which these images were plot. The still image is silent, and more about contemplation, where a film exists in a space time continuum. In film, you can explore these people's lives, and see kids running through rubble. So it gives more of a human dimension to the activities and lives of these people that my images don't include. And that touches you in a different way than seeing a child frozen in that landscape.
C: The film won Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival. Did this award open up doors for you internationally?
EB. It's just reaching out internationally now. But what's exciting about it for me as an artist is that the film puts what I do in front of an audience that would normally never see it. Now it's a motion picture, it's coming out on DVD (available March 6), and then the TV rights will start going out. And with the current phenomenon we're witnessing with the world's media all over global warming and climate change, and the speed at which this global movement seems to have taken afoot, the timing is right.
C. How do you personally deal with the emotional impact of the subject matter that you're seeing?
EB: In a way, bearing witness to this, you build up a bit of a shield. I'm very much an inquiring mind; I'm interested in where this goes and where it all comes from and I try to think in terms of those other histories. So the hardest part for me is that I'm not naïve to think that we haven't always taken. Just look at the pyramids in Egypt. There is some serious earth movement, and slavery, and human toil and tragedy in creating those things.
But my work is a kind of constant reminder to me that our world is changing in a very rapid way; speed and scale are the two things that I find sobering at times. To me it's really more of a concern for my two kids. If we're already a population of 6.5 billion and they're anticipating it will go to 9 billion in 30 years… well, my kids are going to be in their prime lives then. What is life going to be like for them?
I'm now fifty and I kind of feel like we've just eaten through the filet of what the world had to offer and now we're getting near the rump roast. In 40 or 50 years my kid might be boiling the bones. And that saddens me to think that we can go there, but I can see that we're going there, unless there is a radical shift in our consciousness and a shift in how we divide the riches of the world. And we need to turn that consciousness into action soon to stem this Pandora's Box which we've set in motion.
C. You're working to put that consciousness in motion. In fact, you were given a TED prize. Please tell our audience a little bit about that.
EB: TED stand for Technology Entertainment and Design and it is an annual conference that looks to see what can technology, entertainment and design can do about the problems of the world. You may wonder what entertainment has to do with it, but it has a lot to do. More than any culture, it is 'celebrity culture' that is shaping our society's value systems. So entertainment is very much a player in moving consciousness to new levels.
TED has been together for 20 years and it's made up of an illustrious group of movers and shakers; a room full of 'Type-A' personalities. Chris Anderson, who's a kind of curator and the man who runs the conference, wanted to take the group and move it away from a world of ideas and into a world of action. He felt that this group could be engaged and put to positive use in a world that needs a lot of help. So he put in a call for members to submit potential candidates for a prize that included a purse of $100,000 and a chance to make wishes that would change the world.
C. What did you wish for?
EB. I decided to look at the environmental problem in a real pragmatic way, realizing that the modern environmental movement had failed. Why? Because the movement failed to recognize that we cannot tackle the environment in isolation of the economy, of society, of social justice, and of social safety nets. A sustainable society has to have people who feel safe in their jobs, who have a safe place to raise their children, who have clean air to breathe and who have good food to eat. You just have to do that with a consciousness that your habitat has to be maintained and not depleted.
For me, 'sustainability' embraced that view, where as 'environmentalism' simply said, 'save the environment and everything else can go to hell.' That just doesn't work, because it's very easy for the captains of industry to say 'this doesn't make jobs'; but 'sustainability' looks at the corporations, and the government, and the NGOs, and the people, and the grassroots efforts and realizes that all of this has to flow through cooperation.
So I went on a search for a group that was spreading these messages and these values, and whom this prize money could help support. 'World Changing' came to me as an organization with great potential because it already had this dialogue going. They were exploring the Blog which I think is going to be the most influential disseminator of ideas and exchanger of information that the Internet is capable of. Plus, all the writers understood that to be effective you can't just go out there and bitch about what's wrong with the world. We all know things are wrong with the world. That doesn't help. Instead, World Changing isolates an issue like carbon emissions or ethanol or hybrid vehicles and discusses it. 'Buildings today are not efficient.' Fine, 'how do we make them more efficient, who's doing the best job in making efficient buildings, and what can we learn from Europe?' The site has become a central clearing house for all of the best ideas; and anyone who's interested in making a more sustainable world can go there.
And it's growing. The group just had a successful run with the World Changing book. It's already sold over 40,000 copies and they're just about to put it into paperback and three other languages. And now they're being offered more book deals so it is becoming kind of what I'd hoped it would.
C: With another wish, you chose to engage children in sustainable thinking?
EB: Yes. I feel that in building a sustainable world, it's critical to involve children – particularly between the ages of 7 and 12, or what I call 'post-age-of-reason' and 'pre-puberty'. They pay attention and are able to absorb things in a very profound way, so that it can become a life lesson. We ended up working with another TED participant, WGBH, which is a public broadcast out of Boston. We developed a program that will be interspersed between regular programming where children essentially trick their parents into becoming more sustainable by making funny things. But it's essentially designed to direct kids to a website where they can interact with all kinds of things that revolve around sustainable thinking, without them even hearing, seeing, or understanding the word sustainable. In the fabric and in the play of it, you learn about sustainability, while you're having fun.
C: Your wishes are grassroots or 'bottom-up' in nature. Do you believe that grassroots programs are more effective than traditional 'top-down' political mandates?
EB: I often think about what creates a movement. Is it bottom-up or is it top-down? I tend to think it's somehow a bit of both. And it's about consciousness, too. As people learn and wake up to realities, it opens them up to new ways of thinking and doing things. It's hard, though. Most people have no more than a two or five year perspective; traditionally that's been fine and people happily live their lives with that kind of range in their life.
That's where governments must step in. They should be saying, "We're looking out for 20 years from now." Unfortunately the political system has failed when it comes to setting agendas today for tomorrow. That failure probably has something to do with how we elect our government and how we turn politics into a kind of popularity contest versus a battle of policies and values. Unfortunately, that debate doesn't seem to go on very often.
C: Are you optimistic?
EB: I try to be. I try as much as possible. I think it is very important that these messages come with optimism. Because I think there's a real danger that we move directly from denial into despair. But, between denial and despair, there exists 'hope'. Hope and a willingness to try to change, to try to better the world… to try to add to the positive side of the ledger. I think history will judge each and everyone of us on which side which side of that ledger we landed on, because this is a moral imperative. It is a moral decision and we stand at a juncture. We now have enough knowledge to know that we are causing a huge problem and each and everyone of us will be looked upon in our community, by our children, in our possessions, as to where were you? What did you do when you found out?
I think that whether you're a corporate leader or heading up a government, or just an individual making a life for yourself, you have a role to play. There's a role for everyone. It's going to be very interesting to watch the next five years. I've been talking about this for the last 3 years with a number of think tanks ever since I got the award. We've all been talking about the inevitable global movement towards sustainability. We knew it was coming. It would have to come. Because THIS is coming! It's going to come whether we want it to come or not. Denial is not going to stop it.
I found it very interesting when Al Gore, in his documentary, showed a globe and described covering it in varnish. That thin coat, that thin coat of atmosphere, that's what we're fighting for. That thin vapour layer is what separates all of this from being just another rock in space.
A great article about a great artist. My interest in Burtynsky's work is the direct cause of me finding out about Worldchanging, and once I understood what was being done on the site, I knew I'd found something I could get behind. Both it and the book are fantastic resources...simple, meaningful messages with positive spin and achievable! Are there any plans to serialize the book in other print media? the bite-size articles would go over really well as a regular column...