'The planet is finite': Edward Burtynsky on bearing witness to our impact on the world

During his 40-year career, Edward Burtynsky has photographed the planet's changing landscape, everything from large-scale mining operations in Sudbury to plastic landfills in Nairobi. The renowned photographer recently delivered a virtual talk for the Ontario Heritage Trust and spoke with IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed about what he's seen, where he's been, and what comes next.

The renowned Canadian photographer recently delivered the Ontario Heritage Trust lecture

Oil Fields #2, Belridge, California, USA, 2003. (© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

Renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky has an origin story about the start of his illustrious career. It was his first assignment as a student at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute: to go out and photograph "evidence of man." 

"This is 1976," Burtynsky explained in a recent online talk for the Ontario Heritage Trust. "And as I started thinking about that idea, I thought, 'Well, what can I do with this?'"

The question brought him back to his hometown of St. Catharines, Ont.

"There were remnants of the Welland Canal all through the city that I remembered seeing as a kid, riding my bike," Burtynsky said. 

'We are as I like to think, a kind of a planetary experiment unfolding and I don't believe there's anybody fully in control of anything,' Ed Burtynsky told Nahlah Ayed. (Submitted by Ontario Heritage Trust)

Burtynsky went back and photographed those remnants. In the process, he stumbled upon something big. 

"I really realized that with a camera, you can be the kind of alien," he said. 

He began to wonder, "if I was an alien from another planet and I had to come here and show what we, as humans, were doing to the planet, what would I photograph?"

Burtynsky says the answer to that question brought him back to earlier experiences working assembly lines, and particularly in underground mining in northwestern Ontario. He says it was "an incredible opening of my eyes to the scale of industry in Canada and abroad."

You can see the evidence of those experiences, and that first Ryerson assignment, in Burtynsky's award-winning photographs and projects, which have covered everything from shipbreaking in Bangladesh, to the rampant industrialization of China, to the mining industry in Sudbury. 

Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China, 2005. (© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

At its core, Burtynsky's work is about showing the underbelly of what it takes to make our modern world and the industrial landscapes that craft everything from cars to cities, often in pursuit of unchecked growth. 

"That Adam Smith notion of the invisible hand of the market, and the growth is kind of assured if you let it, what it didn't take into consideration is that we live in a finite system," said Burtynsky. 

"The planet is finite... We're living this kind of illusion that we can sustain this infinite growth, while not accepting, in full light of day, that we live in a finite situation."

Uranium Tailings #12, Elliot Lake, Ontario, 1995. (© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

When asked by IDEAS host, Nahlah Ayed, whether he felt as if he were still in some sense working on that first assignment, of finding "evidence of man" in the world around him, Burtynsky was clear.

"Yeah, in many ways I am. Because these things are of scale, and I thought if I was going to show somebody from another planet what we're doing to this planet, I would go to those places. I would think that they're really important."

As to how he'll know when that assignment will be truly complete, Burtynsky turns reflective.

"I do feel like I need to begin to think about, well, what else do I do with my camera?" Burtynsky said. "It's a book that somehow found its last chapter, and now I need to open up a new book." 

Here are some photos by Ed Burtynsky that were discussed in his lecture:

Mines #22, Kennecott Copper Mine, Bingham Valley, Utah, 1983. (© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto )
Pengah Wall #1, Komodo National Park, Indonesia, 2017. ( © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)
Building Ivory Tusk Mound, April 25, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016. (© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)
Basque Coast #1, UNESCO Geopark, Zumaia, Spain, 2015. (© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)
A young Ed Burtynsky in his canoe fishing (Courtesy of Edward Burtynsky Photography)
Breezewood, Pennsylvania, 2008, USA. (© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

* This episode was produced by Melissa Gismondi with help from Greg Kelly.

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