Interview with Edward Burtynsky: Photographing a Planet on the Edge

By Kiša Lala

Photographer Edward Burtynsky is drawn to waste and contemporary ruins, to the flotsam and jetsam of our vanities leftover in the wake of capitalist progress. I spoke to him recently about the photographs he took from a Cessna, flying over the gulf spill – a part of his documentation of ‘man-altered landscapes’ – but instead, our conversation veered alarmingly towards a discussion of our planet’s critical equilibrium.

Edward Burtynsky Oil Spill #15, Submerged Pipeline, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010
Edward Burtynsky, “Oil Spill #15, Submerged Pipeline, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010”

Oil – is the single most powerful source of energy on the planet. And Burtynsky has been telling the story of its use and our capitalist manufacturing processes by way of photographs of places – that lie outside the tourist path.

On display at his New York gallery are b&w prints developed from a set of negatives that had partly disintegrated from humidity, which were saved from his trip to Bangladesh in 2001, while documenting the ship breaking process. This alien graveyard is captured in his film, Manufactured Landscapes (2006).

Burtynsky explains that after the Exxon Valdez accident, insurance companies refused to insure single hulled ships, which were more permeable to damage than double hulled ships – and these oil tankers, the largest moving man-made objects on the planet, had to be broken down – so they were sent to places like India and Bangladesh.

Edward Burtynsky - Shipbreaking # 23, Chittagong, Bangladesh 2000
Edward Burtynsky, “Shipbreaking # 23, Chittagong, Bangladesh 2000”

“Asbestos and PCB oils are inert when they are held together in these vehicles but when dismantled, they become toxic – the same as computers. They don’t kill us while they are sitting there, but you try and melt it, recycle it, and you end up with a toxic situation.”

Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking # 11, Chittagong, Bangladesh 2000
Edward Burtynsky, “Shipbreaking # 11, Chittagong, Bangladesh 2000”

Most people remain indifferent to the process by which objects in our daily lives are manufactured, and have just as little curiosity about where things go once they are discarded.

“Literally, there’s three segments of history to everything,” says Burtynsky, picking up a marble disc on a table in front of us. “Look at this,” he says, “there is no origin to this. Where is this coming from, this stone? There are plants that turned it into this. But then there is the history of the life of this object in our lives – and then when we are tired of it, we discard it – and that is the third history. We only engage with it when it is in our possession. We don’t care for it before or after. But it is our lack of awareness that can get us into trouble. There’s consequences to everything; my photos are mostly of the first and third history – we are already familiar with the second.”

Read the rest here.

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