“[We] come from nature. There is an importance to [having] a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it,” said photographer Edward Burtynsky. “If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.” The respected Canadian photographer uses his work to explore the collective impact we as a species are having on the surface of the planet, and the photographs in his latest book, Anthropocene, document how man’s actions are affecting natural landscapes.
Growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, it was the local General Motors’ plant that inspired Burtynsky’s early work, which records the environmental changes brought on by industry. Shooting photographs from above to show the scale of the changes as “You can’t tell that narrative when you’re on the ground” he continues to adopt this style today. “We’re adding visuals to much of what scientists and geologists were defining as the types of things that we as humans were leaving as markers of the Anthropocene,” says Burtynsky.
Anthropocene is a term that was first coined back in 2000 to describe what some scientists argue is a new geological epoch shaped by humans, as we transform landscapes and change the climate, and in his book Burtynsky explores issues such as extinction, technofossils (human-made objects that will show up in the future fossil record) and terraforming (mines and industrial agriculture). Images include 15 feet high mounds of largely plastic waste at Nairobi’s Dandora landfill, where people continue to leave rubbish despite the site officially shutting down in 2012; huge ponds in Chile where lithium is harvested for batteries; farms irrigated in the middle of deserts in Saudi Arabia and the Imperial Valley of California; and the stark line between rainforest and palm oil plantations in Borneo.
The book is part of Burtynsky’s larger ‘Anthropocene’ project, a multi-disciplinary body of work in collaboration with film-makers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, which includes a documentary film, premiering today, interactive website, and a series of augmented reality experiences that will be part of museum shows opening on 28th September. These experiences include being able to walk around a stockpile of ivory tusks from thousands of elephants that was burned by the Kenyan government as a message to poachers, and a life-size augmented reality image of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, who died in March.
On a more positive note, the book also includes images showing the growth of renewable energy, as well as photographs of some of the most pristine landscapes on the planet. “I wanted to also make images saying, hey, look, diversity is still amongst us,” said Burtynsky. “We still have all the building blocks of a vibrant and diverse planet. But we’re incumbent to protect that diversity.”