In Praise of a Poet and Painter of Light
When the light is soft, you sense the volume of a place – Edward Burtynsky
Raffi Khatchadourian’s recent profile of Edward Burtynsky in The New Yorker shines a wondrous light on the Canadian photographer’s ongoing quest to chronicle in images our changing planet (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/19/edward-burtynskys-epic-landscapes).
We find ourselves at a hinge point of human history; all living systems on Earth are in decline and the rate of decline is accelerating. Moreover, people, especially in the West, feel socially isolated, demoralized by the political process, and uncertain of their economic future. Against this grim backdrop, many have called for what Joanna Macy and others refer to as the Great Turning, a conscious shift in the relationship of humans to the rest of the Earth Community. While Burtynsky’s sweeping images of industrial projects have on occasion been criticized for beautifying the impacts of human ambition on the environment (for examples, see his Nickel Tailings #34 and #35), I believe his body of work does more to raise awareness and catalyze action toward sustainability than another book, journal article, speech or act of protest. His carefully choreographed images tell a story of how humans have shaped, and continue to shape the planet – and because he shoots much of his work from the air, there is a perspective to the images that accelerates comprehension of the vast scale of human impact that is on display. As Burtynsky describes it:
What I am interested in is how to describe large-scale human systems that impress themselves upon the land…I am not out to tell people a unitary story about what they should do to save the earth but, rather, to give people a picture of what it takes to live the way we do.
And perhaps that is why I so admire his work. To date, most of the arguments in favour of sustainability have followed a scientific, technical or engineering “script”. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a good example. Lots of numbers dutifully fact-checked and verified. Maps and graphs showing how much of a particular resource has been lost, and so on. Burtynsky’s work eschews this approach and uses “art” to flip the script and invite people into a visual conversation that lays bear the consequences of choices we make everyday in how we live.
Khatchadourian joined Burtynsky in the Niger Delta, the most contested landscape the Canadian has photographed. For more than three decades beginning in the late 1960s, various military dictatorships dominated the politics of Nigeria and created conditions that tilted the metaphorical playing field in favour of the oil industry. In particular, a lack of oversight in how the oil resource was developed, at what cost, and how the benefits of this patrimony were shared typified the region. Owing to the lack of rigorous monitoring and other checks and balances, millions of barrels of crude oil were spilled into the Delta, hemorrhaging ruin of all kinds, most poignantly the farms and fisheries that were the foundation of the regional economy long before the oil companies arrived. Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed by the government for his passionate activism on behalf of his people and the land he loved, described the devastation wrought by the exploitation of oil resources thusly:
Human life, flora, fauna, the air, fall at its feet, and finally, the land itself dies.
The running shoes you’re wearing, for example, contain an astonishingly high petroleum content that may well have originated in the Delta, and as Burtynsky’s images show, the true social and ecological cost of that petroleum is very high. This is the message of this poet and painter of light; he shows us visually what it takes to live the way we do now. He likens us, not inappropriately, to “a predator species run amok”. The question that fills the space between us and the ethereal light of his photographs is this: When confronted in the starkest manner possible with incontrovertible evidence of the meteor-like impact of our consumptive lifestyle, will we change before it is too late?