The Current

Anthropocene project highlights the apocalyptic beauty of humans' effect on the planet

The creators of the Anthropocene project are using large-scale photography, film and installations to illustrate just how much impact humans are having on the planet — documenting landscapes many people normally don't see.

'It was like something ripped from the pages of the Bible,' said cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier

Elephant Tusk Burn, Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018)

Read story transcript

The burning of 10,000 elephant tusks piled into an enormous funeral pyres in Kenya's National Park in Nairobi is both a devastating and beautiful image to look at — a reaction that photographer Edward Burtynsky intended.

His photographs are part of a multimedia project called Anthropocene that merges film, photography and virtual reality installations to illustrate the imprint humans are collectively leaving on the planet.

"We want to communicate out there with people. We want them to look at these things, to try to ask questions about these landscapes," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"If you represent them in … an unsightly light or whatever, they don't resonate. They don't make us wonder about this place."

A plastics recycling plant is seen in the Dandora landfill in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2016. (Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

Burtynsky, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier crossed every continent except Antarctica to document places around the world most people don't think about, detailing large-scale mining, logging, agriculture and urbanization.

The research came together in their documentary Anthropocene: Human Epoch, which opens Friday Sept. 28 in theatres, the same day the exhibition begins at the Art Gallery of Ontario and The National Gallery of Canada. 

Invoking a sense of wonder is a key tool artists bring to the table, Burtynsky said. It creates a place for people to not only process the reality these images portray, but also reimagine these wastelands.

"In a way that we kind of own them, we embrace them, we look at them, we don't avert our eyes," he explained.

The creative team team behind Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, from left to right: filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, photographer Edward Burtynsky, and cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier. (Courtesy of Mongrel Media. Burtynsky photo by Birgit Kleber)

The complexity of beauty

Baichwal hopes the project will inspire moments of contemplation — and, perhaps, revelation — in otherwise unexpected places or moments.

"For me, that has to include the details of life that happen in these contexts," she told Tremonti.

Baichwal recalled an experience that resonated with her in Norilsk, Russia, about 320 km north of the Arctic Circle.She was visiting NorNickel, a coloured metal mine and heavy metals smelting complex — the biggest in the world.

"It's a completely surreal landscape and it's a completely polluted city and yet there was a parade on Metallurgy Day," she explained, referring to the Russian holiday that falls on every third Sunday of July. (Metallurgy is the art of producing, smelting and processing metals.)

Smelting operations at NorNickel factory in Norilsk, Russia. (Courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018)

Baichwal talked to three women crane operators in the copper smelter, who described how their lives and work come together.

"One of them says, 'You know, you become a romantic here. You see beauty in a flower that's bursting through the stone.' And I almost started to cry because that's the complexity right there," she said.

"They need this place to survive. On the other hand, the effluent is going out and scrubbed to the point where you're standing in the town and if the wind blows the wrong way, your eyes … and your throat starts to sting."

Workers in an underground potash mine in Berezniki, Russia in 2018. (Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)

Hope in the face of the Anthropocene

Extinction is one of the markers of Anthropocene. At present, Baichwal said extinction rates are rising as high as 10,000 times natural rates.

"We're witnessing extinction of an incredible magnitude all caused by humans," Baichwal said.

Despite the grim statistics, she said there's also hope as a result of people working diligently toward change.

That hope is something Pencier sees as well

Pencier sees that glimmer of hope in the work of wildlife biologist Dr. Winnie Kiiru, the brainchild behind the elephant tusk piles that opens Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.

The cinematographer said capturing the moment the tusks were lit afire led to a a mix of visceral emotions.

"It was like something ripped from the pages of the Bible," he told Tremonti.

"These are thousands of majestic beasts that have been killed mostly by poachers — by humans. You're human. And so you feel the weight of that,"  he explained.

For decades, the Kenyan government had been stockpiling the elephant tusks. It was Dr. Kiiru who went to the government to sell the idea of a burning ceremony. She cataloged and indexed every tusk, Pencier said. Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and various visiting heads of state attended the event.

"This was her dream to say that there is no market for ivory," Pencier said.

Listen to the full discussion with Anna Maria near the top of this page.

Produced by The Current's Julie Crysler.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?