On Edward Burtynsky’s Work


General Photography

I found a good series of posts on the work of Edward Burtynsky here, here, and here.

I’m sure that the writer of the posts (whose name I can’t find anywhere on the blog) will not be able to convince those people who have been asking Burtynsky to adopt a more forward political stance; and to be honest, I don’t find those discussions not very enlightening at all. The statement that Burtynsky “takes the approach of trusting the content in the images and letting others come to a voluntary understanding of the subject matter rather than ramming a political message down people’s throats” is quite accurate - and those who might prefer something a little bit less subtle might want to ask themselves whether they’re maybe not a bit too stuck in standard photojournalism.

Burtynsky certainly is no photojournalist. To wit, his statement (I found the quote in the first post): “We don’t really react well being told how to behave. But if we arrive at that from understanding, that there is a consequence to our actions, and we arrive at those kind of conclusions in our own ways, I think we have a much greater chance of really shifting consciousness into a new realm of concerned citizen, and someone who wants to do the right thing for future generations.” This is not someone unwilling to take a stance, this is someone trusting in the viewer’s ability to find a stance. I find that difference quite important.

After all, if - after looking at all (or at least some of) the facts, someone’s solution to, for example, the energy problem in the United States is the mantra “drill, baby, drill”, then we are wise to remind ourselves that as immature and outright idiotic such a stance might sound to us if we happen to disagree with it, we’re not going to change people’s minds by trying to ram our understanding down their throats. I see Burtynsky’s more subtle way of working squarely here, namely in a willingness to accept the other and to allow for a smarter and wiser discourse.

Or, as the writer of the series of posts notes Burtynsky’s is “an admirable stance, but very difficult for the more opinionated among us!” (my emphasis)

I do have to disagree with the following, though. In the second post we find: “I don’t like reading indictments of China in the press, citing human rights violations and politics, and not pointing out that this is a phase that the US also went through, that China is probably where the US was in the ’20s.” While the latter certainly might be true, that doesn’t mean that we simply have to accept what’s going on, actually quite on the contrary. To take an extreme example, just because slavery was legal in the US in its early years, that doesn’t mean we now can’t tell anyone not to have slaves now. One could maybe argue about issues such as labour laws, but as far as basic human rights are concerned, which are, after all, enshrined in the United Nations’ laws (which happen to be valid for every person on this planet), we cannot and must not accept human rights violations anywhere (and “anywhere” does include our own zones of no law on Cuba and in all those other secret prisons across the globe).

But apart from that, I hope that this series of posts might make some people reconsider their stance on Burtynsky’s photography - there is more to be discovered than some people have claimed there is.