Edward Burtynsky
"I’ve become hardened like a war photographer"

Starting out on the assembly lines of factories more than 35 years ago, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky knows very well first hand what the forces of industrialisation and globalisation are doing to our world.

He’s spent most of his career unravelling this thread of human destruction, so much so we now have a word for it, The Anthropocene.
As a photographer he seeks to capture scenes of environmental devastation to educate and inspire us into action, the question constantly arising throughout his work is how did we get to this point? This is a pertinent question that motivates Edward to climb, rail and ascend some of the worlds farthest reaching places. Deploying his arsenal of drones, helicopters and assistants, he magically converts man-altered landscapes into images of sublime beauty.

What the world has gained from Burtynsky’s shock and awe images is the ability to piece together our every day withdrawal from the earth and put it into a whole new perspective. There is no doubt that our earth is experiencing a tipping point but only through the work of people like Edward Burtynsky can we be truly aware of what we are doing. In this exclusive interview, we sit down with Edward to ask not only how 35 years of shooting have changed him as a person but what has he learnt from doing it.

52 Insights interviews photographer Edward Burtynsky

You’ve been doing this work for nearly 35 years as a photographer, from a behavioural point of view, do you think you’ve become more optimistic, pessimistic or even agnostic?

Yes, I feel I am a little bit more pessimistic.  In that politically we are having a tough time coming to terms with what’s happening to the planet.  Every time a positive movement ie. The Paris Agreement occurs there seems to be an equally negative counter movement, such as what is happening in America, even with Brexit.

As one of the baby boom generation, there’s a pang of guilt that we messed up.  I don’t think there’s a master plan and someone’s in charge.  These are the value systems that have evolved from how we shape society, through new technologies, new opportunities in labour and markets.  Many people are working on a lot of different problems, making money, keeping the whole system going.

The work that you do, it feels as if you are a prophet in some way, in that many people don’t know or still don’t the term The Anthropocene.  It feels as if you were helping to craft the popularity of the word through your work?

I first heard of the word in around 2007-8, just a few years after it was minted in 2000 by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul J. Crutzen. He had put the word out to define this new epoch.  Once I looked at the definition, and what they were trying to do, it occurred to me that everything I was trying to do was speaking to that movement from one epoch to another.

Although I didn’t frame it in those geological terms.  Geologists and Stratigraphers look at The Anthropocene from the point of view that the evidence we’re leaving here today will be visible to a geologist a million years from now. 

So techno-fossils for example, all the materials that we build that nature can’t create; plastics, alloys, aluminium you’ll never find them existing in nature.  Cement being the number one techno-fossil, that’s the most significant example of something that nature doesn’t create and that will be readable deep into the future.

“The evidence we’re leaving here today will be visible to a geologist a million years from now. ” – Edward Burtynsky on The Anthropocene

Morenci Mine #1, Clifton, Arizona, USA, 2012

The work that you were doing before 2007, were you finding it hard to describe before the term arose?

It’s not that without my work that word wouldn’t have come into being.  It’s just that I was trying to find expressions of the scale humans have achieved through technology, a way of supplying almost 8 billion people with the things they need for daily life. 

I was continually looking at great examples of it that could be contained within the frame of an image. Always looking at the larger scale whether it was de-forestation, copper mining, iron ore mining, quarries, industry. 

It just seemed to coincide with what the scientists were trying to do in defining the fact that we’ve moved the planet from one state to another.  Before we started burning oil in our atmosphere, we were 280 parts per million, and now we’re north of 400.  That’s affecting ocean acidity and temperatures.

When you’re on these sites such as oil fields, shipyards or recycling plants do you ever feel like you emotionalise the photo or put yourself inside it, are you able to stand outside it objectively as a photographer?

I spent four years in China, photographing a lot of the industrial areas.  I travelled day after day looking at compromised landscapes with rivers that you could barely stand beside because the smell coming off them was so extreme, looking at skies with no birds, forests depleted, mountains chopped down.  After weeks of seeing it, there is this sense of dread. 

How do we counteract the impact that we’re having?  To me, China was the big concern in the early 2000s in what was happening to their water and their landscape.  Now I’m going on to look at what’s happening in Africa as well. It’s hard not to internalise these things and feel them at a base level; we’re mucking around with some serious consequences here.

Do you ever have a day where you just want to be a photographer?

I don’t even have a smaller camera when I go around the streets.  I have an iPhone.  I used to carry a smaller camera, and I wasn’t using it.  My iPhone is generally what I use when I want to take a picture of something that’s interesting. 

The work I’m doing I feel like a writer trying to write a non-fiction book, as a visual artist, it’s a protracted 35-yearbook where everything is interlinked. 

From the very beginning the very first photos I took of the mines and rail cuts going through the Rocky Mountains, each image is adding to this project.   I understood intuitively that the subject matter would be in constant evolution, that there would be more significant examples of the things I was looking at as time would go on. 

“The power of stills is that they embed themselves into our neuro nets in a very different way than film.” – Edward Burtynsky on the power of images

Nickel Tailings #34, Sudbury, Ontario 1996

Have you ever wanted to take a picture to the government to embolden them to act for the environment?

There was a time when images did enter into politics and reshape how the government perceived things within their country.  In the United States, Carleton Watkins brought images of Yosemite and other amazing landscapes in America convincing the Senate to create a national parks system. 

Ansel Adams continued in that vein and used images to secure and preserve national parks from industry and deforestation in America. 

Even before that Lewis Hines images on child labour went into Congress.  I think today there are many different kinds of powerful media from filmmaking to news to the internet from which we get information.  Images I believe are part of that big information discussion. 

Images I’ve always found have a different kind of power within our consciousness.  The best way to describe the power is if you think back to the Vietnam war which was one of the first wars that were highly televised. 

There was a lot of news footage and a lot of stills. But looking back at the Vietnam war most people recall 3 or 4 stills. The girl running from napalm in Vietnam for example or the Saigon execution – the Eddie Black image.  Those 3 or 4 stills have become icons of the Vietnam War.  However, we never think back of some newsreel footage as iconic; we don’t see film footage as a way we remember moments of history. 

Stills lock into our memory in ways in which we can recall them and conjure them back up.  The power of stills is that they embed themselves into our neuro nets in a very different way than film.

You must have become a very tough person, to do this work requires a lot of emotional resolve.  Especially when you’re always looking at these scenes of reproduction, mass commercialisation and exploitation?

Well, you have to, or you’re kind of constantly going through a process of grief.  Where I get more emotional is where I see regulations that have been put in place to protect the clean air, and now they’re being taken away.  For me, those hit deep in the gut, and I think “Oh my god this is just continuing to worsen the situation.”  There’s a group of people that don’t get it and have a whole other agenda.  It seems like we’re losing precious time.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch documentary (2018) 

I get the feeling that you don’t like to talk about yourself so much in the work that you do, it’s not as important as the issues.

I think so. I’ve come to understand that this is something that for whatever reason I’ve been able to embrace over time as an idea.  Moreover, I also feel at this point in time, we all share guilt in this. I came here on a jet, and that jet uses fuel.  I’ve just shifted out of an internal combustion hybrid car to an electric vehicle.  I’ve changed my diet as much as I can, now that I understand more about how we can make a difference with our diet.  So I’m personally trying to come to terms with it in my own life. 

However, I’ve become hardened like a war photographer, you’re out in front of it all the time, you can’t own all those problems, or you’ll just hurt your psyche.

Do you ever feel that you are constructing your work by primarily exploiting more impoverished cultures? That they don’t have a choice in what they are doing, but you’re documenting it nonetheless?

I approach this very differently, the whole China project and for that matter, the Africa project is about the offshoring of manufacturing.

For two years I have worked in these production lines, assembly lines and car factories, I had to put myself through university doing that work, so I understand what it is all about.
A lot of those jobs whether they were manufacturing of shoes or clothes or making toasters, I felt like I was following the process of globalisation.

With multinationals it was straightforward, companies like Nike know that they have a high hand labour product and that they could make their products a lot cheaper. So they offshored it to China and trained them how to do it and then they came back and sold their products a reduced base cost, but at a much higher margin.

If one company does that they can undercut any company doing the same, so you either offshore yourself as a competitor or try to niche market it into a higher end shoe market to sustain the kind of price advantage that you have.

It was multinationals who shifted the manufacturing environment and the effect that it had, was it held inflation at bay for America and no one talks about that, inflation could have been much higher had offshore activity not occurred.

However, at the same time, a lot of blue-collar workers lost a reasonably good wage in an industry that employed many people. It’s interesting that now China categorically wants to offshore 75 million manufacturing jobs to Vietnam, Thailand and Africa because this is all dirty not only for their economy but for their air and water.

Salt Pan #21, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016 

Do you use your work to have conversations about the environment?

Well I have, when I was in China I was saying to the industrialists that I can barely stand by this river it smells so bad, and nothing can live in this water, my gag reflex is active.

However, what I would say to them is, “Do you guys see or have you not learnt from what we did the first time around?” Moreover, their response, in general, was, “Well we cannot clean up this environment until more money comes in.” However, even when the money comes, they still don’t do anything, what they are doing now is moving the dirty business offshore.

When we did the dirty period which was 30-40 years ago, there were 100-120 million people in the US. However, China has 1.2 billion now, and you’re not just producing for your people, you’re providing for the world, so the scale is much more significant. There is a higher cost being exacted through entry into manufacturing to even what happened in America or North Europe.

What effect has the photographer Sebastião Salgado had on you?

Sebastião Salgado comes out of the journalistic world as a concerned photographer over the human condition. ‘Genesis’ is a movement that talks about a world that is still here, to show you the splendour of nature, that there is still much diversity and that we need to understand it and protect it.

My ethos starts at the same point, which has been working on landscapes and then working on man-altered landscapes and then moving back to them, Sebastião Salgado and his approach have partially influenced that.

At the end of the day, our work can show you this is happening; it has an evidence-based foundation. Bringing these stories through photography carries a powerful mechanism to shape consciousness.

“I felt like I was following the process of globalisation.” – Working the assembly lines

Cerro Dominador Solar Project #1, Atacama Desert, Chile  2017

How do you deal with the fact that your work deals in the sublime as well as engaging with the responsibility of the viewer?

As an artist, I am not as interested in showing you a banal representation of my work, I’m trying to find a way I can frame it and find the right light for it. There are elements in the image which can become greater than the sum of its parts.

There is transcendence that occurs when you view the image, for me there is a question of ethically using aesthetics to tell the story, but quite frankly people see these landscapes as places of devastation, I look at these places as ‘business as usual’, all legal entries into places that extract the things we need.

Companies that have applied for licenses which then got permission from governments are working within the rule of law; this is the direct consequence of the Ying and Yang to our lives. Most of our lives are now urban, 85% of Canadians live urban, and 15% live rurally, so our urban lives are a direct consequence of having these materials.  Having these cottons in our clothes, we can open our closet and say this is devastation too. 

As an artist, the meaning isn’t fixed, it isn’t either good or bad. It places you in an uncomfortable moment where you may be enjoying something but also saying I shouldn’t be enjoying it because these are tragic devastated landscapes. That tension is interesting.

Edward Burtynsky – The Human Signature is on now at the Flowers Gallery London until the 24th of November 

All photos (c) Edward Burtynsky. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/ Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Original feature image by Franz Galo