“Look at the things around you, the immediate world around you. If you are alive, it will mean something to you, and if you care enough about photography, and if you know how to use it, you will want to photograph that meaningness …”— Paul Strand
I was fortunate to attend Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s new Exhibition: Anthropocene at the National Gallery of Canada. Anthropocene is proposed as a new geological epoch, “defined by massive changes that has occurred to the planet and its ecosystems as a result of human activity.” Burtynsky along with his team have been travelling around the globe for the past five years photographing and documenting this change. His images are large scale prints between 9 and 18 feet. The wounds that humanity continues to inflict on mother earth are undeniable. I am impressed with his ability to make scenes of destruction, wasteland and garbage dumps look so beautiful. It is as if he took to heart Richard’ Mosse’s advice:
“Beauty is one of the mainlines to make people feel something – it’s the sharpest tool in the box. If you’re trying to make people feel something, if you’re able to make it beautiful, they’ll sit up and listen.”— Richard Mosse
Sadly, I began to imagine that in a few years time, this might be the only way people can experience nature. (Burtynsky’s images were supported by virtual reality technology where you could point your iPad or iPhone to an image and with the downloaded app, you could view a related video.) Perhaps it is already like that for many of us. While living in Yellowknife, come fall and winter, hotels were bursting at the seams with visitors, mostly from Asian countries, to experience the raw landscape, the solitude along with the nightly spectacle of the Aurora borealis. One visitor told me as he looked out my window overlooking a frozen yet barren Great Slave Lake that in China, where he was from, there wouldn’t be a square inch of open space.
It also seemed to me that the best photographers have something meaningful to say with their work. I was reading an article this morning where a computer program in the 70’s called World1 predicted that human civilization is likely to collapse by 2040 and that we are on track for that. I also remember George Carlin warning us in the 70’s that we shouldn’t worry too much about the Planet as it will survive us having done so for thousands of years but that our time is running out and that we should “Pack your bags folks. The planet isn’t going anywhere… we are!” Perhaps Edward Burtynsky’s images will inspire change. Our way of life is not sustainable. One can only hope… 2040 is not too far off.
First Published in October, 2018