My images are just “the cuticle on the baby toe of an elephant” – Edward Burtynsky interview

Beachcomber on the Thames at low-tide near the Tate Modern in London

Last night I had the rare privilege of attending the screening of “Manufactured Landscapes” at the Tate Modern in London followed by a Q&A session with the renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky. The film, directed by Jennifer Baichwal, documents Burtynsky as he moves around China shooting large-scale environmental devastation and colossal development as Man expands his footprint on a scale never before witnessed on the planet. Sustainability is certainly on the back-foot.

The opening scene sets the tone as the camera moves along an impossibly long assembly line that, 8 minutes later, still hasn’t come to an end. No workers laughing or chatting, no radio playing in the background and no commentary from the film-maker. Just the sound of machines drilling, clanging and hissing in a display of pure joylessness but admirable productivity. If ever there was a single scene that summed up China’s reputation as ‘workshop of the world’, then this must be its best candidate.

I thoroughly recommend watching this film but let me cut to the chase. I’m most interested in the views of the great man himself as this was a rare opportunity to hear him talk candidly about his work so let me begin. In Burtynsky’s own words, “film has a phenomenal reach that I could never have done alone [but] still photography enters your consciousness differently to film and allows you to hold that thought in a different way”.

Francis Hodgson (writer on photography for the Financial Times) acted as chief interviewer with questions from the audience at the end. It was encouraging to know that there were like-minded individuals in the audience who posed many of the same questions that were running though my mind and which I touched upon in my earlier blog from a visit to The Photographer’s Gallery.

Burtynsky admitted that although he is a great admirer of Ansell Adams, he never photographed a landscape in the same way as the great master of light. I have previously classified him as an environmental photographer but it became clear to me that there is no easy label that one can attached to Burtynsky. In his own words, he describes himself as a “human systems photographer” rather than for example, a landscape photographer. An unusual feature of his work is that different audiences read different messages when they are confronted face-to-face by his large prints on a gallery wall. Hodgson put it to him that people may be struggling to get messages out of his images as a result. However, Burtynsky made it clear that “identifying culprits is not my way of working…right and wrong is too simplistic”.

The interviewer probed further to see if he was concerned about people using his pictures for ends other than his own. But the unflappable Burtynsky simply replied that he is “just putting his work out there…in a way that doesn’t polarize the argument”. Elaborating further, he explained that he wants to get industrialists in conversation (as well as environmentalists) and get everyone to the table to talk. This neatly leads me on to how on earth he manages to secure access to such incredibly sensitive landscapes, mines and factories that beg to remain hidden from the prying eyes of the world’s media. Burtynsky’s approach is honest, simple and effective. Go right to the top (of the organization) and put it to the CEO or whomever, that he is “building a compendium of human enterprise” at the start of the 21st century. Then open a page in one of his books and simply ask the question, “ do you want to be in the compendium or not?” No false pretenses, no hidden agenda and no stealth (my humble apologies for even suggesting!). Such privileged access would never be possible if he made an approach as an environmentalist.

Hodgson put forth the notion that not only was he photographing industrial landscapes but that his own process was also becoming industrialized now that he used the services of helicopters and teams of assistants etc. But Burtynsky made light of it, describing how he felt “liberated from gravity…if I need a bucket lift, then I just rent one”. Queue laughter from the audience.

Burtynsky duly addressed the sense of repulsion and attraction which his images engender and which I have personally felt and described in my earlier blog. He went on to explain that the psychological term is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ – a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotions simultaneously. I found myself wanting to accuse him of glamourizing environmental destruction, of suggesting that pollution can be beautiful, of justifying Man’s recklessness towards the planet. But it became clear to me that Burtynsky is equally as concerned for the environment as I am (he took a clear swipe at climate change deniers at one point in his talk). He just recognizes that he can achieve far more by taking a perceived neutral stance and challenging audiences to question just how sustainably we are using the earth’s precious resources.

Burtynsky came across as a most eloquent interviewee, happy to talk about his work, softly spoken and provoking emotion without being emotional himself. He is also a humble man who describes his work as “the cuticle on the baby toe of an elephant”. He openly admits that a big story can’t be told in an easy way through a frame yet I know of no one else who gets as close as he can.

As the interview drew to a close and the audience filed out of the auditorium, I sneaked down to the front to seize the chance to meet the great man. In my mind, I was meeting a rock god after an amazing gig at a legendary music festival. Everyone else was queuing up to get his autograph but I just wanted to ask him for some words of wisdom that would inspire me. So what did he say? Well I think I’ve told you enough already……

UK wind-farms – a new landmark ruling against a mark on the landscape?

Dawn breaking behind the Scroby Sands wind farm off the UK Norfolk coast

Hemsby is a rather unremarkable English village – until now that is. Lying on the edge of the Norfolk Broads, an exceptional wetland area with National Nature Reserve status and containing Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSIs), it has recently been lauded by certain sections of the British media as a victory of David over Goliath. Sea & Land Power and Energy Ltd recently had plans to build four 105-metre high turbines nearby to supply power for 5,000 homes. However, a High Court judge, Mrs. Justice Lang, ruled last month that it is “not correct to assert that the UK national policy promoting the use of renewable resources negates the local landscape policies or must be given ‘primacy’ over them”, setting a precedence for future wind farm applications. I decided to pay a visit to the latest battle line between conserving landscape and constructing wind farms to make up my own mind.

As I drove into the village, I was struck by the not inconspicuous turbines of a nearby wind farm at Somerton, turning lazily in the late afternoon breeze. These wind turbines are situated equally as close to the protected Broads as the proposed wind farm and yet they obviously had successfully attained planning permission at some time or other.  I pulled into a Hemsby convenience store, which also doubles as the village post office to restock on supplies and chat to the owners about their views of the recent wind farm ruling. The husband and wife team standing behind the counter were unsurprisingly against the development making it clear that they had no desire to be surrounded by yet more wind turbines. They mentioned the nearby Scroby Sands offshore wind farm that they said required “forty engineers” to service them with local boat owners making a good living ferrying them back and forth from the coast.

Scroby Sands was constructed in 2004 at a cost of £75 million and generates enough energy to supply over 30,000 homes saving 68,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.  A WindPower Programme report using data from 2005 found that the wind turbines at Scroby Sands operated 84% of the time and although maintenance costs are significant at £50,000 to £75,000 per year, the turbines are by no means standing idly. Wind energy in the UK is subsidized but then again, so is the coal and gas industry. A report in the Guardian newspaper in February 2012 found that wind power still gets lower subsidies that fossil fuel tax breaks.

The following morning, I arose at the ungodly hour of 4am to capture the sunrise. Peering out through the flaps of my tent, I almost returned to the comfort of my sleeping bag as the sky looked overcast and lifeless. Nevertheless, I set out more in hope than expectation to a sandy beach at Caister-on-Sea with the intention of photographing the offshore wind farm at Scroby Sands. My persistence was duly rewarded as I raced across the dunes with my tripod and camera to take up position on the shoreline. The seascape before me was simply majestic with the golden orb of the sun poking above the horizon lighting up the sky peach-orange, then lilac-pink. Along the horizon, a line of 30 wind turbines stood to attention connecting the sea and sky and adding to the drama of a magnificent sunrise. From where I stood, they appeared no more alien than a passing fishing trawler as it chugged into view.

I decided to visit the nearby Somerton onshore wind farm to see for myself how the turbines interacted, or indeed detracted, from the surrounding landscape. The 10-turbine farm is situated on a low hill either side of a winding country road and rising almost organically from a green sea of recently planted wheat. My attention was immediately drawn to a striking horse galloping in the neighbouring field situated within 100 metres of the nearest turbine. He seemed unusually friendly coming right up to the fence sniffing at my camera and no doubt looking for a treat. I was somewhat taken aback that such a timid and easily spooked animal should appear at ease so close to the wind turbines. After all, were these structures not blamed by some for causing noise pollution in the countryside?

The next stop on my journey was to the Horsey wind-pump located only 3 miles or so from the village of Hemsby. This imposing structure is run by the National Trust, a conservation charity that protects places of historic interest or natural beauty across England. I was particularly keen to photograph the wind-pump not only because it is such an imposing and unusual structure but also because it represents the ingenuity of our ancestors to harness the power of the wind – something which we are now trying to replicate on a much larger scale and with greater efficiency. The five-storey wind-pump was built in 1912 to pump water out from the surrounding land so that it could be used for agriculture. Its white wooden sails painted a giant yet delicate “X” against the cloudy sky. I managed to climb up the steep ladders inside and past a pair of swooping swallows that had taken up residence on the top floor. As I gazed into the distance from the roof, my eye was drawn to the image of a wind turbine at Somerton – the modern turbine and the ancient wind-pump facing off across the flat landscape of the Broads. Perhaps time to move on and accept the new as well as the old?

On my way back from the wind-pump, I stopped off at the nearby National Trust store to ask the manager about walks in the area and maybe get his views on whether wind energy still has a place in the Norfolk countryside. It was still early morning and I was the only customer yet he paced anxiously up and down the store. I introduced myself by saying that I was “interested” in wind energy but didn’t elaborate any further. I decided not to tell him anything about my background nor declare my own views, as I didn’t want to prejudice what he might say to me. I needn’t have been so cautious as it was obvious that he was unfavourably disposed towards all forms of renewable energy. His main argument was that wind turbines (or solar for that matter) simply didn’t work although he had no facts or figures to support this. He had talked to engineers maintaining the offshore wind turbines at Scroby Sands and they told him the same. I pointed out that less than 10% of renewable energy in the UK is owned by individuals or communities, compared with over 65% in Germany, where four times as much clean power is produced. However, he scoffed at the suggestion that perhaps local people would be more amenable to wind farms if the community had part ownership and therefore a potential source of income. There was a definite lack of trust from the man working for the National Trust. I should make clear at this point that his views do not necessarily reflect those of the National Trust itself whose website shows a commitment to renewable energy, such as their ground source heat pump at the nearby Brancaster Estate in Norfolk.

One might conclude at this point that the Great British public is firmly not in favour of wind farms and that NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) is alive and well. However, a poll for the Guardian newspaper in March 2012 found that 60% of people said they would support new wind-farms in their area. At the same time, it also showed an increase in those strongly opposed to wind-farms tripling to 21%. So what can be done to ensure that the UK meets a EU directive to achieve 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020? Onshore wind has an important role to play and the latest ruling in Hemsby shows that unique and valued landscape should not suffer at the expense of our commitment to mitigate climate change. It should be possible to do both but this may require a rethink on where we site wind farms in the future.

The visual impact of wind turbines is an important one but there’s no easy way to disguise a 100-metre plus structure. Difficult decisions need to be made on which landscapes deserve to be protected the most and those, which are of lower value. Should wind turbines be situated near populated areas where Man’s footprint on the local landscape is firmly established or will we instead end up scarring the remaining pockets of unspoilt natural landscape that are far removed from population centres?

Mrs. Justice Lang declared Hemsby to be “simply a case of policies pulling in different directions: harm to landscape and the benefits of renewable energy”. However, scratch the surface and it becomes evident that this is not a straight-forward story about Man versus Landscape. The locals I talked to did not articulate their concerns for the landscape clearly but rather discredited the technology behind wind turbines. I believe that it is important that the public accept or reject wind farms for the right reasons rather than perpetuating arguments that have little or no factual basis. The public should not feel forced to adopt a multi-pronged attack that uses every available weapon in the arsenal in the hope that one of them will eventually score victory. The latest ruling will hopefully give people the courage to fight to protect our landscape for the right reasons.

For it’s part, the renewable energy industry and politicians need to win the hearts and minds of local communities in ways that make sense to people’s everyday lives. Will they get any financial benefit from allowing wind turbines into their backyard? Will they still be able to enjoy views of the landscape that haven’t changed for generations? Can modern wind turbines be accepted in a way that traditional wind-mills have come to be loved and admired over time?

Our most precious landscapes deserve to be protected but equally we need to avoid climate change impacts that could destroy these landscapes through flooding or other extreme weather events. For instance, much of the Norfolk coast is slipping into the North Sea and rising sea levels due to climate change will only hasten this. The Norfolk Broads also stand to be inundated with saltwater destroying its unique freshwater ecosystem. Wind farms and landscape both need each other. Hopefully the images from my recent photo trip in Norfolk illustrate that it is possible for both to co-exist in harmony. We should not be forced to make a choice between the two.

The industrialisation of our landscape by Big Oil

Yesterday I went to The Photographers’ Gallery here in London to see Edward Burtynsky’s excellent exhibition entitled “Oil”. The gallery just reopened last month after an extensive refurbishment. They’ve made the most of what isn’t exactly an ideal space being situated in a relatively tall and narrow building. As I moved through the gallery, I overheard two ladies next to me as they looked at Burtynsky’s Highway No.  1 – a spaghetti junction of concrete, sweeping curves of grey in many shades, overlapping, twisting, jostling for space. “Isn’t that a nice piece of engineering?…incredible!” said the younger lady to the older one. I’m not sure that this is the primary reaction Burtynsky meant to elicit from his image but it is nonetheless a perfectly valid one. I couldn’t help but feel both in awe and despair as I stood transfixed, trying to figure where roads began and ended, unsure if this was a Highway to Hell or Heaven.

Other images in his collection are far easier to take a firm viewpoint on. Images of derelict oil fields in Baku, Azerbaijan for example. Pools of oil reflecting rusting rigs that stand sentry over an abandoned landscape. Perhaps most powerful of all were a series of aerial shots looking down on the scene of devastation across the Gulf of Mexico caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. A drilling platform on fire is lost in a thick glossy black sea shimmering in the sun (Oil spill No. 5) whilst elsewhere a submerged pipeline cuts through a sickly yellow sea – possibly due to an algal bloom related to the oil clean-up operation. Giant yellow tailings ponds surrounded by scorched brown earth with the chimney stacks of a refinery looming in the distance form the most striking image in his Alberta Oil Sands collective. The oil sands are a hugely controversial project in Canada – they have a far greater carbon footprint than conventional crude oil due to the extraction process and a devastating effect on the landscape of the boreal forest where they are mined.

I found myself constantly wondering about the logistics behind capturing such powerful images which were often taken from elevated angles (though not always from the sky)  and requiring access to highly sensitive (as well as remote) locations. The close-ups of hulking rusting ship carcasses picked over by impoverished labourers in the world’s largest “ship graveyard” at Chittagong, Bangladesh is an example of the latter. The recent BBC television series on the Indian Ocean could only get to within half a mile out at sea even though they were freely able to film in Mogadishu, Somalia (widely accepted as the most dangerous city on earth). Burtynsky strikes me as a man of patience, diplomacy, charm (and possibly stealth) having dedicated himself to the “Oil” project over 12 years. His images convey conflicting emotions in the viewer towards the industrialization of the natural landscape. Burtynsky somehow manages to create both tension and harmony between the man-made and Natural landscape in a single image. The dramatic sunset seen in Shipbreaking No. 13 may cast a soft light on the rusting behemoths in the foreground making them seem less threatening. But one can also imagine an alternative more serene scene of coastal mangrove swamp with abundant wildlife and perhaps local fisherfolk that may have existed 50 years previously. Beauty can certainly be found in the most unexpected of places…but only a rare few can portray as he eloquently describes “vast junk-pile cemeteries that house the detritus of our petroleum economy” with such grace time and time again.


The Photographer’s Gallery

Edward Burtynsky website