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……

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