Man's Industrial Progress

One of Canada’s most well known photographers, Edward Burtynsky, has travelled the world documenting the link between nature and industry through his large-format photos of nature transformed through industry; the ‘manufactured landscapes’ of mines, dams, and factories.

Director Jennifer Baichwal followed the work of the photographer for the documentary in which these ‘cycles of consumption’ that, often at the periphery of our vision, are brought centre-stage by Burtynsky’s stunning photographs.

Burtynsky’s art addresses some fundamental questions about the nature of industry and sustainability. Stuff - the things we consume, purchase, and buy – vies for some sense of legitimacy in a globalised world where our needs and wants for endless products are both fashioned and manufactured.

Burtynsky’s own assessment of his work sums up what his photos aim to do: “These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success.”

These landscapes, far removed from our daily experience, play an important role in transmitting a key environmental issue – that our consumption, and continued desire for new things, leaves a very real mark on the planet.

For film-maker Jennifer Baichwal, it was the personal response she had to the photos that led to a documentary about Burtynsky and his work: “I thought I was looking at a beautiful abstract, then I would realise what I was looking at - industrial scars on the landscape. It was an ethical shock: the shift from the aesthetic pleasure of the image to the form of the horror.”

She continues: “We wanted the film to follow the photos. The way Edward’s photos work is that they shift consciousness – you’re taken off guard, and there’s something about that way of coming to awareness that is very powerful.”

This personal reaction – what Baichwal described as both a “repulsion and attraction” – provided the tone of the film. Burtynsky’s dismembered voice punctuates the film’s narrative; the photographer reflects on his work while expressing his personal interests in the nature of a changing landscape. This proved to be an important approach in the making of the film.

Jennifer explains: “We could have done a traditional artist biog but it’s not interesting to me, it wouldn’t do the topic justice. Edward was an author, not a subject, and that’s why you’ll just see him walk into frame. That was intentional.”

In light of the recent success of such documentaries as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour (2007), Jennifer Baichwal’s film strikes a different chord.
“We tried to do what the photos did in our films – not offer easy solutions,” she says. “It’s an ‘ecological’ film and it perhaps even comes to similar conclusions as An Inconvenient Truth, which is completely didactic. In our case, it’s the photos that do it. I wanted to create a film that led to a similar shift in awareness to the one I had seeing the photos.”

But there is a danger that Burtynksy’s framing of these landscapes, while shocking the viewer, actually nullifies any semblance of meaningful response; are the photos really able to connect the viewer to what is being seen or are they just another landscape for us to 'consume' with our eyes?

In one sense the film falls short of what both the director and photographer have described as 'bearing witness to what we are all responsible for': the connection between consumerism and the landscapes loses some of its impact on the viewer. The photographer as artist, by searching for the beauty in the ugliness of man’s progress comes close to failing to illustrate the wider impact – and cost – that these places are having. Are the photographs themselves part of what Burtynsky describes as the seduction of consumerism?

The film chooses to emphasise the work of the photographer over the wider context and background to Burtynsky’s subject matter. The film’s approach is what director Baichwal describes as “much quieter” than the call-to-arms stance of so many documentaries.

Jennifer: “It’s a meditative film – it's not easy to be left with your own thoughts when watching films. Exhortation doesn’t work very well. To act, there has to be some sort of internal change. Doom mongering leads to inertia and despair.”

To find out about the film and the British Film Institute click here

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2008

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