Photographer Edward Burtynsky once got lost while driving in West Virginia, stumbling onto a surreal landscape. The mountaintops had been dumped into streams and valleys in order to mine the coal deep within the mountains. It was a hideous but fascinating landscape that set him on a path to document mankind’s devastating impact on the earth’s natural landscape. If Ansel Adams became famous for his achingly beautiful images of nature’s grandeur, Burtynsky brings the same fine-arts aesthetic to his images of colossus-sized industrial production.
I got a rich introduction to Burtynsky’s work recently when I watched his 2006 film, Manufactured Landscapes, on DVD. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, the film travels the world with Burtynsky as he sets about taking large-scale images of huge quarry pits that go on forever, vast mountains of recycled materials, the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, and “ship breakers” in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where oil supertankers are disassembled piece by piece to recycle the metal.
The power of Burtynsky’s work lies in the dispassionate presentation. It avoids polemics and even interpretation. This is clear from the memorable opening shot of the film, a single tracking shot that spends ten minutes gliding past aisle after aisle of a Chinese factory of 23,000 employees where most of the world’s irons are made. The mind-boggling scale of the factory and the submerged individuality of so many people in yellow aprons dedicated to a single task – producing boxes of irons for export – is sobering and a bit frightening.
Manufactured Landscapes is intent on showing us the human and natural realities of globalized industry and commerce. Americans are quite casual about acquiring cheap products from stores and then throwing away huge amounts of garbage. Well, that stuff comes from somewhere, and goes to somewhere. The people of China play a significant role in handling the invisible “backend” of the world’s consumerism.
Besides showing the bee-like colony of factory workers, Burtynsky visits Chinese villages where peasants disassemble discarded computers and electronic equipment in order to recover precious metals. Squatting amidst huge piles of electronic wastes, women pick apart printed-circuit boards and scrape off metal components from chips. Of course, the process exposes them to all sorts of carcinogenic and disease-inducing substances, many of which leach into the ground and poison groundwater.
Burtynsky also visits the Three Gorges Dam, which at 600 kilometers long, is the world largest dam ever. It has taken 17 years to build, and will generate 85 billion kilowatts per year after it starts up in 2009. To build it, the Chinese government displaced an estimated 1.1 million people and obliterated thirteen cities brick-by-brick.
By roaming some of the largest “manufactured landscapes” of Asia, Burtynsky shows us the eye-popping impact of “normal” industrialized life on the earth. Our dependence on oil requires fleets of supertankers, and those ships need to be made, maintained and recycled. The “ship breakers” on the beaches of Bangladesh are one small part of this process. Barefoot young men wade thigh-deep into the residues of oil in supertankers in order to scoop out oily sludge and disassemble the massive iron sides and floors of ships. They are manually dragged onto shore, to be recycled. No Occupational Safety and Health Administration “intruding” into people’s lives here.
The photo shoot of the ship-breakers prompts Burtynsky to muse about his personal dependence on oil:
I arrived in my car made of iron, filled with gas. I pulled out a metal tripod for a camera with film, which is filled with silver. So everything I’m doing is connected to the thing I’m photographing. Looking at these ships in Bangaldesh, the connection was clear: at some point I filled a tank of gas from oil delivered by one of these tankers.
And now that peak oil is imminent, how shall we remake our daily lives?
One reviewer said of this film, “Taken as a whole, Manufactured Landscapes is a mesmerizing work of visual oncology, a witness to a cancer that’s visible only at a distance but entwined with the DNA of everything we buy and everywhere we shop.” Unfortunately, the film is more a series of vignettes than an unfolding narrative, and one gets the sense after an hour that there will be no further revelations, just more beautifully appalling photos. Still, if you wish to see the underside of the consumer fantasyland that we are encouraged to live in, it’s worth renting Manufactured Landscapes, the DVD: a remarkable documentary.