Inside Edward Burtynsky's eye-opening Anthropocene Project

Edward Burtynsky talks to Paul Wells about how he gets his shots and what his art says about life on Earth

Toronto’s Edward Burtynsky may be the world’s most famous art photographer. He got there by photographing the places in the world where human activity has the greatest and most visually compelling impact—and by pushing his images out through an ever-growing series of channels. As part of the Maclean’s Live series, he spoke to Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells about his new Anthropocene Project, which is a movie, two museum exhibits and assorted books and podcasts all at once.

Q: What is Anthropocene?

A: It’s a word that was minted around 2000 by [Nobel Prize-winning chemist] Paul Crutzen. He determined that the planet is now shifting into a new epoch, and that we are shifting the human systems more than all natural systems combined. That’s never happened on the planet, where one species is the agency of change. So, anthropo-, humans; –cene, change. The last time we had an epoch change was 12,000 years ago, from the last ice age. And the last time we had an extinction event to the scale of this one was 65 million years ago. So that bears paying attention. We can see what’s happening. And the driver clearly seems to be us.

Q: The film doesn’t depict this as unrelievedly a horrible thing. It’s an event or a moment that brings with it choices.

A: Absolutely. I mean, it doesn’t mean that it has to be a bad Anthropocene, or that we won’t survive it. But it does mean that we have to become aware of it, and the raising of a consciousness is what we as artists are trying to do through the film and the exhibitions and the photographs.

Q: What equipment do you use to capture these images?

A: The images at the National Gallery and the AGO are all shot with either a 60- or a 100-megapixel camera. We also travelled with a drone that was big enough to carry my Hasselblad [a medium-format digital camera], so all in it’s about a 40-lb. package. Then of course [there’s] film equipment, and we had VR equipment and special heads for murals. So those murals you see at the show were [made with] a special head that stitches a digital picture together using about 120 or 200 images, and you get this incredible resolution—it’s literally billboard size, but you could walk up to it and see every leaf on the plant, which was impossible 10 years ago. So I’ve been in this kind of photographic Renaissance.

Q: I get the impression you were working full tilt for most of the four years it took to make the film, because you racked up a lot of air miles. Tell us about Lagos, Nigeria.

A: Lagos was interesting because it’s one of the fastest-growing cities. They’re adding about 6,000 people on a daily basis, coming to the city and locking on to the edges of the city and building these ad hoc, informal communities. If business continues as usual, by 2100 there will be 85 million people. It would be the biggest city in the world. So it is that migration to Lagos that was interesting, and the fact that here’s a city without a city planning department.

Q: In Nairobi, Kenya, you visited a landfill where thousands of people are picking through it for buried treasure, essentially.

A: All day long they’re just combining the right kinds of plastic that can then be recycled into the system. It’s 100 acres, 15 m high. There are children and families who live on the plastic pile, and kids who have been born on the plastic bag pile and have known nothing but that as their life. What was interesting is that about a year ago, much to the surprise of everybody, all of a sudden the Kenyan government said plastic bags are illegal, period. And within months, all the companies that sold plastic bags were shut down.

Q: So walking down the street, coming out of a grocery store in Nairobi, there’s no longer any plastic bags. But all of the billions of plastic bags that were used until that decision, they’re still there in that landfill.

A: One of the things that the Anthropocene working group look at is a term they call “technofossils.” So things like aluminum tinfoil or plastic bags or old radios. Anything that nature can’t create itself. If a geologist two million years from now was chipping along and said, “Oh, look, I just found all this plastic, so I now know I’m in the Anthropocene.” This is evidence of our moment, our time on the planet.

Q: There’s a photo that is, to some extent, less dramatic than some of the others until you realize what it is. It’s a sky shot of a huge concrete seawall around part of China. It says in the book that 60 per cent of the coastline of China is now protected by these concrete seawalls.

A: They’re aware that the oceans are rising, and they’re trying to protect the coastline.

Q: I see on Twitter all the time people saying, “Ha, ha, ha, the oceans aren’t rising, this is Barack Obama lunacy.” Somebody forgot to tell China that the oceans aren’t rising.

A: Adaptation is actually one of the things that I believe China’s really embracing in a big way. We often go to Google Earth just to see what they’re doing. And up in the Gobi Desert, the wind farms are beyond imagination in scale, huge solar plants. So they are embracing nuclear, solar and wind on a level that is incredible. They are tooling up for the world that’s coming.

Q: You also went to Germany, to a coal mine near the Rhine River that is slowly eating the surrounding towns.

A: This was one of the largest coal operations in all of Germany, and quite frankly, I’ve never seen an open pit on that scale, ever. From the top edges, it was six kilometres across. It’s like a six-kilometre V with several hundred metres at the bottom, which is the open coal seam. And as they’re harvesting the coal, the whole thing is moving along. If towns are in its way, they just flatten the town. I think in terms of the film, it’s one of those zeniths where all of a sudden you’re looking at this monster machine tearing down a church.

Q: A lot of this stuff, even these coal-digging machines, is eerily beautiful.

A: It is the biggest land-moving machine that humans have ever constructed. It’s 100 m high by 300 m long, and when it starts to move, the earth literally shakes. This particular mine had 18 of these machines.

Q: How much of your time is spent making sure that you’ll be able to get your shot once you’re there? And how do you deal with public officials who really don’t want gorgeous photos of what they’re doing?

A: For any one of these shoots, we’re into tens and tens of thousands of dollars because we’re bringing film equipment in, and special technicians who can run this equipment. So we can’t go there without having permission pretty much in place. That being said, things happen. Like when we went to Russia, to Norilsk. We were on a cultural visa, and they couldn’t quite believe that we would come with 20 cases of equipment, with recording equipment, drones, film equipment. So we were detained four times, fingerprinted, held back.

Q: Why did you want to be in Norilsk?

A: It’s the only deposit of nickel and precious metals that’s larger than Sudbury’s. Back in the day when there was a gulag and Stalin sent you off, that’s where you went. You went to Norilsk or Murmansk. We were there on one of the nicest days I think that happens in Norilsk, sunny and shiny, and it wasn’t really what we were looking for. I was actually looking for a moodier landscape, but you take what you get.

Q: And this town produces one per cent of all of the sulphur dioxide produced in the world. I mean, it’s really not clean. And the thing I found fascinating is that there are still people living their lives, right?
A: Well, life does go on. I mean, I can’t imagine what winter’s like, because it’s so cold and dark—but vodka’s cheap.

Q: What are you trying to say with this tour of the world’s most spectacular human interventions?

A: I realized that just looking at the landscape, as much as I loved it, I felt that somehow it was nostalgic. And when I started looking at mines and photographing them, I started to feel it was more in keeping with my times. If I’m going to be an artist working with a contemporary subject matter, I need to stop just looking at the land.

Q: It brings you onto inherently political ground. Is that something you embrace?

A: Well, I’ve always been careful not to position myself as an environmentalist in the classic sense of the word. But I do position myself as an advocate for sustainability and a concerned citizen, a concerned artist for the planet.

Q: When you go to the National Gallery and see your stuff next to the Group of Seven, does it feel like it’s at home in places like that?

A: I’ve always made the work to exist on walls. And I kind of fell in love with some of the modernist ideas, that the photograph has this capacity to resolve detail. It was the ultimate realist tool. And I didn’t want to walk away from that strength of photography. I wanted to make work that functioned as art. I’m trying to layer it with ideas from painting, ideas from photography of the past, and layer them into the work as well, so when you come up to one of these images, you can’t just walk by it very easily. You stop because it stops you. “What is this place, and how come I’ve never seen anything like this before?” And to get a photograph to slow you down and stop and look at it is not a small feat.