As It Happens·Q&A

Edward Burtynsky wins photography award, and shares it with his Ukrainian colleagues

When Edward Burtynsky was honoured for his contribution photography on Tuesday, he decided to share the spotlight with Ukrainians documenting the war with their cameras.

Canadian says photographs of the war in Ukraine are 'paramount' for showing the world what's happening

Edward Burtynsky won the the prize for outstanding contribution to photography at the 2022 Sony World Photography Awards in London. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains graphic images of war and death.

Story Transcript

When Edward Burtynsky was honoured for his contribution photography on Tuesday, he decided to share the spotlight with Ukrainians who are documenting the war with their cameras.

Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer of Ukrainian descent, won the prize for outstanding contribution to photography at the Sony World Photography Awards in London.

The St. Catharines, Ont.-born photographer has spent decades photographing industrial landscapes, taking bird's-eye-view shots of tailings ponds, sawmills, potash mines, and garbage dumps.

"As a Canadian Ukrainian, I would like to share this award with the artists of Ukraine, many of whom are bravely documenting the desecration of both their people and lands," he said in his acceptance speech, reports the Globe and Mail. 

Burtynsky spoke with As It Happens guest host Nahlah Ayed on Wednesday. Here is part of their conversation.

Why did you want to share this award with your fellow artists in Ukraine? 

In many ways, what I've done with my own work is to go into parts of the world that are difficult to access and very much out of sight of most people. But yet, in a way, it has such an effect on our world, the worlds that I've photographed…. And so it's kind of the idea [of] bringing light into what was previously a dark area in our minds and our consciousness and bringing it forward. And I think what the photographers are doing on the front line in Ukraine is very much that.

If their eyes aren't there and the cameras aren't there showing us what's happening, then, in a way, we don't understand the degree of tragedy and horror that Ukraine is experiencing right now. 

Burtynsky's 2012 photo of a phosphor tailings pond near Lakeland, Fla., is on view now at Somerset House in London, England, as part of the Sony World Photography Awards 2022 exhibition. (Edward Burtynsky)

Beyond the actual craft, what you do and what they do is quite similar because it's chronicling injuries. You show chronicles of injuries of the Earth. They are chronicling injuries of their country and of people. How much more difficult is the task that they're undertaking in covering this war as photographers? 

[At] any moment a bomb can hit them. And in fact, you know, one artist that I've been talking to, Maxim Dondyuk, his best friend [Maks Levin], who was also a photographer, was killed several weeks ago. And so the danger is that there are soldiers on the other side of that, seeing the camera. 

So the difference between me being there is somebody wasn't trying to kill me. And that's a big difference.

A photograph of Maksym Levin, a Ukrainian photographer, is displayed at a funeral service at St. Michael's Cathedral on April 4, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. According to the Prosecutor General's office of Ukraine, Levin was killed by bullets allegedly fired by the Russian military on the outskirts of Kyiv. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

You mentioned the photographer Maxim Dondyuk. Tell me a bit more about him. What is it about him and about his work that you admire so much? 

He was very much like me in terms of photographing landscapes in the region around Donbas. Then when the war broke out in 2014, he took to going and photographing the bombed-out buildings, a kind of after-war. And there was these amazing images in the winter and these kind of places that have been bombed out and standing there. He also did a whole series on Chernobyl

I had a real kind of respect for what he was doing. And there was a powerful aesthetic that we shared and a belief that, in a way, he's making images that I think are powerful and will not just be consumed and digested and left in the past — that these images are are well-thought out and well-conceived and will go into the future as images recording this time. 

This photo by Levin shows Ukrainian servicemen taking cover after firing a cannon during a military operation against pro-Russian separatists near Pervomaisk, Ukraine, on Aug. 2, 2014. (Maks Levin/Reuters)

Why is it so important to you to help him and to help Ukraine? 

It's just a moment in history that I never thought I'd see, and I don't think a lot of people expected something like this to happen. So I think the importance with capturing that and making sure that there's a record of it — a photographic or image record of it — is paramount. 

And I know those images that are coming in today and throughout that time will help keep Ukraine in the news cycle. Because you just don't want it to become a background war when there's so much at stake.

There's a country that has 6,000 nuclear bombs and chemical bombs and [is] far outsized compared to the country they're attacking. So it is a David and Goliath story. And, you know, I think most of the free world wants to see David win. 

A poster shows a photo taken by Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk of bodies on the ground during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It's displayed for Russian passengers on their way between Kaliningrad exclave and mainland Russia at Vilnius railway station, Lithuania on March 25. (Andrius Sytas/Reuters)

It's a David and Goliath story, but it's also a very personal story for you. How much of what you're doing for Ukraine stems from a feeling of responsibility to your background?

That was my first language. And I still speak Ukrainian with my mom and my sister. 

[My mother is] about to turn 98. She lived through Stalin and the Great Starvation when she was seven and eight. And she remembers going to bed hungry every night. And her father was able to bring home food once in a while, and they had a cow that they could get some milk from. And she said, "We survived because we have that cow." But other people in her neighbourhood didn't survive and died. 

And then years later, Hitler came when she was 17, and blocked off all the roads to her village and took her into a train transport back to Germany. And [she] was basically selected as they selected slaves for their farms, unpaid labour, to create food for the German army during the war. 

So she lived that, and now she's in a retirement home and watching this again. And she even said to me before I came to London that she wished she didn't have to see this, that she worked so hard to free Ukraine, and she was ... the president of a league of women to free Ukraine. And now to see this is a terrible thing for her. 

See photographs from inside the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol:

This war and this time ... probably ... will be one of the most documented in history. I just wonder [if we can get] a final word from you on how important still photography will be in preserving the memory of what happened. 

I can recall a story when I was telling students about the difference between film and stills, and I said, "Think of the Vietnam War." 

That was actually one of the very, very first wars that had footage coming back to people in America and beyond as a war was unfolding. And it was the first really televised war. 

But if we look at it today, I mean, we don't remember the video footage of that war. But we do remember the still images of the girl running from napalm or the Eddie [Adams] photo of a man being shot in the street. And there's a half a dozen of these images that live on ... that are etched in our memory as reminders of what that war was about. 

And that war wasn't chronicled to any degree as this war is. So I believe eventually it's the still images that carry on through history and become the touch points for what happened at that time in history. So I think it plays a very important role in establishing the events of a particular time in history.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article quotes Edward Burtynsky crediting "Eddie Black" as the photographer behind a famous photograph of a police chief of South Vietnam, executing a Vietcong fighter. In fact, the photo was by Eddie Adams.
    Apr 15, 2022 12:17 PM ET

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