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.
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.
"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."
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."
I count myself amongst those living in ignorant bliss, unable to fathom how a pen is put together or how the paper I write on evolved from a plant.
Burtynsky continues, "If my car breaks down in the highway I used to know it's that - but now you look under the hood it makes no sense!"
Throw it away. Make another one! I tell him I sense a building concern for the environment expressed in areas of contemporary art, and it is perhaps triggered by this subconscious fear of our inter-dependency and in the lack of control over our own survival.
"Artists have always done that in society," says Burtynsky. "Who else reflects on what we do? Philosophers and artists - the rest of us are usually engaged in life. The job description of an artist is not just in crafting materials and working in the world of physicality, but also in expanding consciousness to explore new ways in which that material can be used - or in using that material to tell stories and raise our consciousness in ways that hasn't happened before - to speak of our time...Who does that? Writers and artists."
"It was around '96 - I had my oil epiphany," says Burtynsky. "I realized that oil was under the surface, it was under my steering-wheel, my windshield; my car, my rubber tires, the asphalt road; my clothes are synthetic...I am surrounded by oil."
"Oil became a theme. Oil delivers energy like our blood does. It's almost like blood because when we see it we know we have a problem. It's the hidden energy source that keeps everything humming."
I mention the sense of disconnect in our world between the oil we use to fund our survival and the consequences of how it is refined for us. Burtynsky's photographs tries to bridge that disconnect.
"There is a disconnect - more than it is healthy for any society to be. No society has ever been so dependent on one thing in the history of this planet: Oil. We are of course dependent on water. Two scary things just on the edge: peak oil, or running out of water. I can just sense those things just out there. When we hit them, we are going to be a very different world. It headlines quickly, but bad is going to worse quickly."
We're very lucky to exist at all, with the right distance from the sun and steady seasons; the last meteor hit us 85 million years ago. But with all the natural gas, coal and oil we use to keep ourselves humming, we're dumping 250 million barrels of C02 a day into the air. Citing Al Gore's film, Burtynsky reminds me that the atmosphere is just a bit of saran wrap around the planet -"a thin margin of life that makes the difference between a habitable and an inhabitable planet. I don't know if people see the urgency enough. We can lose control over the whole and it would be our fault for not paying attention," says Burtynsky.
Following up on his oil project, Burtynsky is focusing on water. (For more, see National Geographic)
"I am looking at places where water is getting close to becoming critical," says Burtynsky with calm conviction, "India has serious problems. It's a dry large country - they are draining the aquifers [underground lakes] faster than they are recovering, like Owens lake ... [soon it will be like the] end of the malt shake with the straw - there's suddenly no more water."
While driving through the desert in Morocco once I came to a place where the air swarmed with flying plastic bags. Like thousands of suspended jellyfishes, they floated aimlessly in the air. I saw a future of bag-chasing lepidopterists. I asked Burtynsky whether he was interested in photographing human trash - what about the floating rubbish in the Pacific Ocean? Or what about the space trash, in our cosmic junkyards?
"I have photographed some," he says, "but I try to also photograph things that capture our imagination - that aren't just records of something. There is a transcendent quality to the pieces that transport us away from reality to a world of wonder - [I want to be] able to show a place that is familiar yet unfamiliar."
Burtynksy who is Canadian, was born in 1955 right in the epicenter of the baby boom.
"When I was born the world population was 2.5 billion," he says, "and every decade we have added a billion. It took all of life and creation to get to 2.5 billion -and we tripled it in 40-50 years. We are rogue species..."
"Oil was the key revolution, not the green revolution. It used to be that one person in the field can support two persons outside. Over 50% used to be agrarian all the time. Now 2% of the population of America produce all the food with excess. With the mechanical advantage of oil and machinery - they don't even need a farmer in a tractor in California - the tractor can run precise patterns with ploughing on GPS."
Burtynsky does not make any judgments in his photographs and he is careful to point this out. "The narrative is open. People ask me if I am an environmentalist - and I say no, I am not. It's not that I don't have environmental concerns, but the environmental movement has generally failed. It hasn't educated people in the right way. It's been over-powered by other forces with money."
"Still," he says stoically, "it's about messaging. It's not about indicting - not about BP or Exxon being bad - somebody's going to do that work - there'd be another logo there. We are human beings and it's about - we need oil."
Even though his pictures rarely contain people, there is a sense of responsibility and ownership when we look at them.
"We are implied. There is an empathetic moment in my work. I see it as a thirty year lament at the loss of nature at our hands, at the expense of our expansion. Underneath every picture is the fact that nature is being pushed back and our footprint is just getting bigger. And I am that edge...trying to show that we are taking over, more and more..."
I conjecture that his job would get easier: there won't be any more natural landscapes to photograph anyway, I predict.
"We are going to be hovering over these concrete worlds, no trees - like Star Wars - an all built-up world. We will go to tree museums..." Burtynsky laughs.
Text: Kisa Lala Photographs: Courtesy of Edward Burtynsky's Studio