In his teens, photographer Edward Burtynsky worked in the factory of General Motors in his native Ontario. The experience gave him a taste for “seeing large things in a big perspective,” as he describes it. He built his career on stark, amazingly beautiful images of the effects of industry on the environment — to him, the huge, jagged rocks in a massive quarry pit spoke volumes more about the natural world than nature photographs of lakes and forests.
On a promotion trip to Tokyo for “Manufactured Landscapes,” the documentary film inspired by his work, Burtynsky stressed that he had no intentions of making a political statement through photography and the main reason he loved working with director Jennifer Baichwal was because she understood him completely in this respect. “In this movie there’s no obvious rage that comes out at you,” says Burtynsky. “Which is as it should be, for who are we in the developed, industrialized world, to feel rage at what China is doing? They are traveling the same road that all the industrialized nations have come, but because of the immensity of the population and the speed with which they are doing it, everything seems accelerated and blown up.”
The workers depicted in your photographs and this movie have zero individuality. Why is that?
Individual faces didn’t come into the scheme of what we were trying to do. Although I must say that many of the faces I encountered in China were striking, and they really had stories to tell. But for this project, I wanted to avoid portraits, they are not my forte anyway. The film and the photographs are about what industry is doing to the environment. The individual is not the industry, as we all know.
What struck you about the factory workers in the opening scene for instance?
I talked with many, and they were very serious, very dedicated. They didn’t see themselves as victims of progress, they were mainly afraid of losing their jobs, and there were long lines of people waiting to fill any vacancies.
Did you have trouble with the government when shooting these industrial projects? The Three Gorges Dam is highly controversial.
We did encounter some problems but no more than was expected. They saw that we were interested in the dam itself, not the political or controversial side of it. But the Western photographers I met in China couldn’t understand why I wanted to shoot these things when there is much beautiful scenery . . . temples and such.
Your depictions of heavy industry are always highly stylish, beautiful, even poetic.
I suppose that’s because I see them that way. I’m not saying these things are beautiful in themselves, or that the world should endorse heavy industry. But the reality is that with each passing year, there’s less to photograph in the natural landscape because all that is being destroyed or altered by industrial projects like the ones you see in this film. That’s an inescapable fact. The job of the artist then, is to offer a different perspective, a different aesthetic. There should be a new standard of beauty because after all, there will be more factories, power plants and so on. We can’t avert our faces and pretend they’re not there. They exist, because we chose them to.
As an artist, what is your mission?
My mission is to present what I see as a modern dilemma. We’re concerned about the Earth and want to keep it safe and clean but at the same time, we’d like to lead better lives, go shopping, etc. This exposes us to a disturbing, uncomfortable contradiction: we want things, but the things we want tend to destroy the environment that we claim to protect. There is no immediate solution as far as I can see. So my job is to reflect all that in the images I create.