This Photographer Captures Striking Photos of Environmental Disasters

We talked to 'Manufactured Landscapes' photographer Edward Burtynsky about Kenya's ivory burn, Fort McMurray wildfires, and the impact of 3D printing.

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May 19 2016, 7:55pm

All photos by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto unless otherwise noted

Edward Burtynsky is one of the better-known contemporary Canadian photographers. People in and outside the industry have marveled at his still and moving images that show the devastating impacts humans have had on nature. His work is at once stunning and revolting. "Manufactured Landscapes," his photo and documentary project on the consequences of industrialization produced in the first half of the aughts, was, for many, an awakening: our footprint was, is, colossal. Three years ago, he released "Watermark," which explores our relationship with water, reminding us of its importance, to us and to the whole fauna and flora, and that it should not be taken for granted.

Now, he's working on a new project "Anthropocene." To make the case that humans have ushered the planet into a new geological era, he's embraced new technologies, from 3D printing to virtual reality. As he recounted his experience filming the largest burning of illegal ivory tusks in Kenya, from which he had just returned and enthusiastically explained the mandate of his new studio Think2Thing, I was reminded of the enduring role storytellers, journalists, photographers, filmmakers, artists, and the likes have in raising awareness and provoking discomfort, so that we do not resign ourselves to the status quo.


VICE: At the end of April, Kenya's President set ablaze 105 tons of illegal elephant ivory and more than one ton of poached rhino horns. What compelled you to capture this historical moment?
Edward Burtynsky: I'm currently working on a multimedia project that involves a feature documentary film, a book, an exhibition, which on top of having prints on the walls offers new experiences such as virtual reality and 3D. It explores the idea of the "Anthropocene." Humanity spent the last 11,000 years in a stable period called the Holocene. But geologists are now saying that we should think of the present as a time of change for the state of the planet. We're entering the "Anthropocene." The whole project tries to define what are the characteristics of this event, what we are doing that is bringing this event forward, and how is this event revealing itself from the sediments to the atmosphere. One of the ways to go about it is to look at extinction. The last time we had such a big extinction was over 60 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared. A meteor impact hit the planet and created a dark decade. Now, rather than a meteor impact, extinction is brought about by humans. We are the event. The elephants, for instance, have been dropping at a rate of approximately 12 percent per year because they're being hunted by and large for their tusks. The Kenyan burning of ivory stockpile is a response to that, a way to take ivory off the market.

Yet, many critics have said that destroying the seized tusks won't actually stop the poaching of elephants.
I don't think it will; but it does bring awareness. By making people realize that this is a terrible problem that is happening right now, you can bring that story to the buyers of ivory, to the people who have some control over borders and who can stop the flow of ivory. You have to bring attention to the problem because if you don't, then nothing happens. It's a desperate measure in desperate times. Everybody that was there hopes that we'll never have to have another one like this.

Authorities estimated that about 12,000 tusks were being burned, about 6,000 elephants. Since it is believed that 25,000 elephants are killed annually, this represents only a quarter of the yearly destruction of herds by humans. So, the people present were by and large saddened by the fact that humans can't keep their hands off these magnificent animals because it's worth so much money. The piles of burnt ivory were valued at over $150 million.

What was that moment like?
It was very tense. It was pouring the whole morning and the evening before. We wanted to shoot something that would be memorable but, by morning, we still hadn't had permission at that time to fly the drone we brought equipped with a 5K EPIC camera. In Kenya, drones are illegal. Since the President was going to be present, there was no way that we could do a sneak drone flight through it. We didn't get permission until about an hour after the leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, had left the site. We had about an hour and a half before sunset. It took us about forty minutes to get it up in the air and we got 3 successful flights over the site while it was burning.

Why bring new capture technologies to cover an event such as the burning of illegal ivory?
Thanks to high-resolution cameras we were able to shoot simultaneously around the piles and capture over 2,000 images. Then, we used software to put all of these together and render each tusk fully, including the text that identified each one, the texture, and the colors. The resulting file can be printed as a 3D object, experienced online or in virtual reality. At some point, you'll be able to experience the pile at scale and walk around it.

I see it as an extension of capturing and experiencing our world through the photographic process. For a long time, we had the X and the Y, the two dimensions; but now, we can add the third dimension, the Z. I've been calling it "Photography 3.0." I like exploring new tools and bringing them to artists. It's what I did 30 years ago with color printing at Toronto Image Works. Now we're bringing artists in here [Think2Thing] to be able to use these new tools to start to think differently, to make things that were impossible up until now.


Photo by Jim Panou / Edward Burtynsky Studio

Throughout your career, you've been documenting devastating impacts that humans have had on the environment, what changes have you noticed in our relationship to nature over that period of time?
I've been interested in the scale and speed at which humans have been affecting the natural world. Whether it's sea life, wetlands, or forests, we've been involved in the transformation of many landscapes. All living creatures go to nature to find the source of what they need to survive. What I've seen working on my projects for the past 35, 40 years, is the speed and scale of change brought about by technology, that has allowed us to move from, when I was born, 2.5 billion humans to now 7.5. That acceleration has a lot of repercussions for the environment: oceans are being depleted of fish, getting warmer, and more acidic; coral life is nearly lost; forests are constantly being pressured. We're creating wasteland from what once was a natural landscape. It is daunting to think of what the solutions are. Having seen those wastelands has given me the sense that time is of the essence. Time for talking is over and it's time for action. The burning of the tusks, whether people agree with it or not, is something that brings world attention and says: "we need to do something now, not tomorrow."

What impacts are Canadians having on the environment?
As Canadians, we are the custodians of one of the most important forest in the world, the Boreal forest. Biologists and scientists like to say that it's the second lung of the world, the first being the Amazon. It's under threat because of global warming, the pine beetle epidemic, drought, and so on. We also have the Great Lakes, which represent 22 percent of the world's known available freshwater. Add to that the two million lakes north of the 49th parallel and we have 32 percent of the world's known freshwater. In comparison, China with 1.5 billion people only has eight percent. We are the stewards of an incredible and important piece of property. Thus, we have a big responsibility.

I'm encouraged by the current government because the discussion is now on the table and an action plan is being put together. We still have things to resolve such as how to deal with the oil sands and the additional CO2 emissions that results from that type of extraction and how can we become an example for the world. The biggest thing that the Western world has to do is help to prevent an increase in the number of coal plants going into India, Indonesia, Africa, and China. If all the coal plants that are currently in the books are constructed, then, I believe it's game over. So we need to figure out how do we leapfrog over coal power.

One can make the argument that the forest fires happening in Fort McMurray remind Canadians of the impacts of our behaviors.
We're seeing these enormous events occurring now, from the loss of the coral reef, to Hurricane Katrina, or the forest fires in Fort McMurray, that can be attributed to the burning of fossil fuel, the reduction of forest canopies, or of planktons in the ocean, and so on. We're losing the natural mechanisms for dealing with C02 while adding more of it to the system. Our hands are all over the problems.


Photo by Jim Panou / Edward Burtynsky Studio

In that context what impact can visual storytellers such as yourself, still hope to make?
As photographers, we capture these worlds that most of us no longer engage with, such as the wastelands, or the mines, the logging areas or the fisheries. There are no reasons for us to go there anymore. We go to the shopping mall instead. Showing these places on films or on camera allow us to own up to the fact that there is another world that is experiencing change. As our cities grow, other areas are diminishing. There's a yin to the yang. I believe in the power of images to be able to open up consciousness and raise awareness to a world that's happening around us and that we have no opportunity to see on our own.

What does 3D bring to the table?
3D is allowing artist to have access to tools that give them new ways to tell stories. Artists are a consciousness. They are often the researchers in the R&D lab of human experience, understanding where we're going, where our psyches are going, and where desires are going. Artists are always at the cutting edge of fooling around with the expanding human consciousness. 3D, whether as a computer or VR experience, or as a physical object, will have impacts deep into the future. I'm interested in getting them in the hands of creators to build better worlds.

For instance, we're trying to replicate the shell of a turtle that's being threatened by ravens who have taken to killing them for fun. With the help of scientists we're hoping to create a realistic copy that as soon as the raven pokes it with his beak sends a smell or a response that deters him from trying again. We're intervening in nature to create a moment that helps these turtles survive. To succeed it needs to be as realistic as it can be.

You're also working with virtual reality, why take on two new technologies at once?
There a natural fit. If I'm working with capturing something full color in three dimensions that I can print, than it already exists as a file on the computer and can be easily experienced in the virtual reality headsets. Once you go in the third dimension, all these tools start to make sense. They're just extensions of ways of experiencing the world.

A lot of people believe VR creates more empathy; do you share those views?
It can create more empathy in the viewer if used properly. Right now, it's still a pretty blunt instrument. People are not using it so effectively. I'm really curious as to how one begins taking someone through a 360 experience and actually guides their viewing, keeping their attention in the right space. When done well, you can feel as if you're actually in another space experiencing that moment and it's kind of uncanny.

Hearing you talk, I feel that calling you a photographer would be reductive or is it that being a photographer is more than taking pictures?
I've never been just a photographer because my curiosity runs 30 deep. Now, it's a team effort. I'm more of a director now, whether it's running my businesses, making films, or photography. I'm using teams to achieve what it is that I want to achieve. I couldn't be doing this without great people around me.

What have been some of the most memorable moments that you have experienced?
One of the first places where I was totally blown away, were the shipwrecks in Bangladesh in the 2000s. It was like being Dickens and going back to see the beginning of the industrial era when the conditions were so dangerous people were dying. It was jaw-dropping and hard to believe that it was happening today. Around the same time, I also went to India. Coming from Canada, I had never seen such poverty, people being born and dying on the streets, the whole cycle of life right in front of you. It was an awakening in understanding the scale of humanity and its impacts.

How have those experiences shape the way you lead your life?
I try to live as sustainably as one can. I have this property up North where I planted over 2,000 trees. When I travel, I offset on the best standard I can find. I've had a hybrid car for years and only use it when absolutely needed. I prefer to bike. I try to eat sensibly. And in my work, I always advocate for a more sustainable world. I've become a strong advocate for sustainability.

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