The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky became known for documenting the transformation of nature through mankind with his breathtaking large-format photographs of landscapes altered by human hands. His images are metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence exploring the collective impact of humans on the environment. While nature provides us with the necessary materials for consumption, the planet suffers and Edward Burtynsky is documenting the scale of its destruction.
Anna Burgstaller: You traveled to five continents to document water: to find out where it comes from, where it goes, and how mankind is reshaping the natural landscapes. These images are the subject of a book, a documentary, and the current solo show at Kunst Haus Wien Museum Hundertwasser. Where does your fascination for water come from? How did the water project get started?
Edward Burtynsky: My first big project was about China, which took me five years. Afterwards, I did a twelve-year project on oil. I was just kind of finishing the oil project when I was doing some work in Australia. There, I heard stories about how this continent is experiencing drought. They are one of the first experiencing the effects of climate change on a continental scale. A reporter told me about this area on eastern Australia with big cattle ranches existing since many generations, but the drought changed everything. Once it dries out, your home, your ranch and everything that you build becomes worthless. Hundreds, thousands, of farmers were leaving their farms to start new lives in cities. Some of them even committed suicide. That’s when I started to realize that there are workarounds for a shortage of oil, but there is no workaround for having no water. For me, this was the beginning of understanding how crucial water is.
Anna Burgstaller: To fully identify your images one must look closely. Only then what seems like beautiful abstract forms begin to reveal themselves as evidence of how badly the industry has drilled and drained our planet. But instead of showing man’s impact on the landscape from close you choose to step back by using drones in the sky far above. Why?
Edward Burtynsky: For me, showing landscapes on a large scale reveals the human intervention and how we shape nature to get what we want. We are kind of in control of nature and the only way to tell that story is to get back in order to allow people to comprehend it as a collective force. In addition, choosing an aerial view allows me to get some distance, while showing the scale. If I was sent down by an alien life form to observe what humans were doing to the planet, I might take the same pictures, and probably say that humans are acting crazy, messing with it.
Anna Burgstaller: Your photographs seem to somehow achieve a balance between the aesthetic and the destruction of the planet: to convey the human impact on our environment, while seeming calm and innocuous. How do you manage to find beauty in all this destruction? Are you afraid of sometimes trivializing it?
Edward Burtynsky: First, I would not classify the unnatural changes seen in my pictures as something bad. I think it is questionable whether it is bad or not. For me, it is more like a consequence of human life on the planet. Therefore, it is not a trivialization, but more a way of bringing these changes into our consciousness by seeing those landscapes as a direct result of our trying to be who we are. To every creation there is an equal grade of destruction. We tend to only interface with the act of creations but there is a whole other world that exists and that world has exited our consciousness because we just do not think about it. At this point I am operating as a feedback system showing that there are landscapes occurring as a result of our living life the way we are.
Anna Burgstaller: What exactly is your idea behind showing these unfamiliar and abstract landscapes? Is there an intended political statement when choosing locations where human intrusion has disrupted the ecological balance or do you simply wish to document these environmental changes?
Edward Burtynsky: I would say that my work is more revelatory than accusatory. I am revealing places that we don’t normally get to see and I am allowing the viewer to judge of whether it’s good or bad. Sure, I have my opinions, but I don’t necessary think they are being expressed in my work. Our cities can only exist because we discovered oil and I am kind of documenting this development. We are leaving a vast trek of waste behind us and I am just talking about how this fuel source has allowed this world to emerge. Of course, my works are made out of a concern for the planet, a concern that we are impacting nature in ways that we don’t understand with consequences we don’t understand. At the end of the day, the whole effect of all the work is that we are a species gotten out of control and eating up the world. There was something called nature here before we started changing it, but we are the one controlling it now, whether we like it or not. Showing the scale of human enterprise opens up a dialogue without passing judgment. Designating these landscapes as bad and negative is to kind of negate human existence, so I see it more as existing consequences rather than bad landscapes. Each one of these landscapes was intentional, by design and with approval from the government. If that intention is a disaster, let’s talk about it.
Anna Burgstaller: Much of your work is animated by environmental consciousness. In recent years, there have been many discussions about whether art should be/can be politically motivated or not. Do you personally think that art can change society?
Edward Burtynsky: I think art can raise consciousness and make us think about the world that we are creating and the prices being paid for our success. Personally, I feel melancholic about the loss that is happening in nature. We are achieving higher and higher extinction rates. I think it would be almost inhuman not to feel a sadness for what is happening to the planet in particular to the oceans. It is not a happy story right now. I hope that my work brings people to understand that we are reshaping the planet in a big way and we need to pay attention to it. Our behavior is something that has big consequences for the next generation. We are living in a very dangerous time and using up a lot of resources. How do we collectively begin to adapt to this new reality and prevent the worst from happening? We don’t have a lot of time left. Some people say that the technology is here to prevent the worst from happening, but I am pessimistic that we won’t develop the technology in time.
Anna Burgstaller: In your methodological approach, you make use of different political, social and scientific references to create a historical context in which you situate your photographs. What do you think about the current political discussion regarding the privatization of water? Did your own use of water change after finishing the water project?
Edward Burtynsky: Water is a right to life. If you don’t gain access to water you are going to be dead within three days. The only prize of water that people should be asked to pay should be the cost of delivering it to them safely. I also think we shouldn’t let people waste water by establishing a limit measured by a reasonable average usage of water. If you go past that average and waste the water, you pay more. When we made the film, I, personally, gained a more profound appreciation for the importance of water . I said to my co-director that it is going to be a success if people are going to appreciate having a shower more after watching it. We should have a kind of respect for water. It isn’t a guarantee that we will have access to fresh water for the rest of our lives. In fact, this is something many people need to fight for and we need to understand that. If there are forces within your community that want to profit from it, you need to be aware of that. Taking water away means to take the right to life away because if you are poor, you can’t afford to pay for it.
Anna Burgstaller: You chose a topic of global relevance and expanded your form of communication from photography to lecturing and film ("Watermark"). What role does the use of other media play? Where do you see the limits of photography?
Edward Burtynsky: What film, lectures and interviews do is add more context to the work, which is why I do it. Especially the film, which allows a story to be told by bringing that areal disembodied view together with pictures from the ground, showing the people who are experiencing that landscape. In addition, music can be a very emotional charged medium that informs you about how you should be feeling about the visuals. Therefore, a film seems much more emotional and people are getting more engaged with the topic, trusting the filmmaker to tell a certain story. The viewer can learn something, while stills on the other hand are more passive. The need an investment from the viewer, to get the full idea you must confront yourself with the image and complete it in your own mind. Whilst a film is more to be carried through--you are being told how to feel and how to think, like someone is taking you by the hand and carries you through it--whereas in my exhibitions you are on your own-- everyone is experiencing it slightly differently. I think images are more surreal with a more image-to-mind kind of relationship, and films are more emotional. In my works, I don’t control how one should feel about it, everyone will be affected by something different and engages with it in different ways.
Anna Burgstaller: What are you working on at the moment?
Edward Burtynsky: For the newest project, I am looking at Africa, but also at the fact that we as humans are tipping the planet into the next geological age, which is the Anthropocene. For the last 12.000 years, we have been living in the Holocene, which has been very stable, and the building of civilization has occurred within this window. Before that, we were nomadic, we’d sit in one spot until we depleted it and then we’d move to the next spot. But with farming, civilization started and now everything comes to us. But the human impact is shifting the planet into another state which is maybe not so good. It doesn’t have to be a bad Anthropocene, but it will be if we don’t change our behavior in the next one or two decades to stop the worst from happening. We are now at the edge.
Featured images: Edward Burtynsky - Salinas #3, Càdiz, Spain 2013 © Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Admira, Milan/ Galerie Springer Berlin/ Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Edward Burtynsky, Portrait © Birgit Kleber.