Edward Burtynsky – TED Prize wish: Share the story of Earth’s manufactured landscapes (2005)
Inspired by nature – that’s the theme here. And I think, quite frankly, that’s where I started.
I became very interested in the landscape as a Canadian. We have this Great North. And there was a pretty small population, and my father was an avid outdoorsman. So I really had a chance to experience that. And I could never really understand exactly what it was, or how it was informing me. But what I think it was telling me is that we are this transient thing that’s happening. And that the nature that you see out there – the untouched shorelines, the untouched forest that I was able to see – really bring in a sense of that geological time, that this has gone on for a long time, and we’re experiencing it in a different way.
And that, to me, was a reference point that I think I needed to have to be able to make the work that I did. And I did go out, and I did this picture of grasses coming through in the spring, along a roadside. This rebirth of grass. And then I went out for years trying to photograph the pristine landscape. But as a fine-art photographer I somehow felt that it wouldn’t catch on out there – that there would be a problem with trying to make this as a fine-art career. And I kept being sucked into this genre of the calendar picture, or something of that nature, and I couldn’t get away from it. So I started to think of, how can I rethink the landscape? I decided to rethink the landscape as the landscape that we’ve transformed.
I had a bit of an epiphany being lost in Pennsylvania, and I took a left turn trying to get back to the highway. And I ended up in a town called Frackville. I got out of the car, and I stood up, and it was a coal-mining town. I did a 360 turnaround, and that became one of the most surreal landscapes I’ve ever seen. Totally transformed by man. And that got me to go out and look at the largest industrial incursions in the landscape that I could find. And that became the baseline of what I was doing. And it also became the theme that I felt that I could hold on to, and not have to re-invent myself. That this theme was large enough to become a life’s work – to become something that I could sink my teeth into and just research and find out where these industries are.
So I starting thinking, well, we live in all these ages of man: the Stone Age, and the Iron Age, and the Copper Age. But we’ve become totally disconnected from them. There’s something that we’re not seeing there. And it’s a scary thing as well. Because when we start looking at the collective appetite for our lifestyles, and what we’re doing to that landscape – that, to me, is something that is a very sobering moment for me to contemplate.
And through my photographs, I’m hoping to be able to engage the audiences of my work, and to come up to it and not immediately be rejected by the image. Not to say, “Oh my God, what is it?” But to be challenged by it. To say, “Wow, this is beautiful on one level. But on the other level, this is scary. I shouldn’t be enjoying it.” Like a forbidden pleasure. And it’s that forbidden pleasure that I think is what resonates out there, and it gets people to look at these things, and it gets people to enter it. And it also, in a way, defines kind of what I feel, too. Is that I’m drawn to have a good life. I want a house, and I want a car. But there’s this consequence out there. And how do I begin to have that attraction, repulsion? It’s even in my own conscience I’m having it, and here in my work, I’m trying to build that same toggle.
And I decided to start looking at something that, to me, had – if the earlier work of looking at the landscape had a sense of lament to what we were doing to nature, in the recycling work that you’re seeing here was starting to point to a direction. To me, it was our redemption. That in the recycling work that I was doing, I’m looking for a practice – a human activity that is sustainable. That if we keep putting things, through industrial and urban existence, back into the system – if we keep doing that – we can continue on.
So now, this brings me to the wishes.
It’s been quite a journey – coming up with these decisions. And what I want to do is I want to dedicate my wishes to my two girls. They’ve been sitting on my shoulder the whole time while I’ve been thinking. And to me the whole notion – the things I’m photographing are of great concern about the scale of our progress and what we call progress – because I think we can start correcting our footprint and bring it down – but there’s a growing footprint that’s happening in Asia, and is growing at a rapid, rapid rate, and so ultimately the strategy, I think, here is that we have to be very concerned about their evolution. Because it is going to be connected to our evolution as well.
So part of my thinking, and part of my wishes, is sitting with these thoughts in mind, and thinking about, “How is their life going to be when they want to have children, or when they’re ready to get married 20 years from now – or whatever, 15 years from now?” And to me that has been the core behind most of my thinking. In my work, and also for this incredible chance to have some wishes. Wish one: world-changing. I want to use my images to persuade millions of people to join in the global conversation on sustainability. And it is through communications today that I believe that that is not an unreal idea.
And Worldchanging.com is a fantastic blog, and that blog is now being visited by close to half a million people a month. And it just started about 14 months ago. And the beauty of what’s going on there is that the tone of the conversation is the tone that I like. What they’re doing there is that they’re not – I think the environmental movement has failed in that it’s used the stick too much. It’s used the apocalyptic tone too much. It hasn’t sold the positive aspects of being environmentally-concerned and trying to pull us out, whereas this conversation that is going on in this blog is about positive movements. About how to change our world in a better way, quickly. And it’s looking at how to rethink and how to re-strategize the movement towards sustainability.
And so for me, one of the things that I thought would be to put some of my work in the service of promoting the Worldchanging.com website. And this is still in preliminary stages. But these images, with Worldchanging.com, can be placed into any kind of media. They could be posted through the Web, they could be used as a billboard or a bus shelter, or anything of that nature. So we’re looking at this as trying to build out. And what we ended up discussing was that in most media you get mostly an image with a lot of text, and the text is blasted all over.
And so in this case, because it’s about a lot of these images and what they represent, and the kinds of questions they bring up, that we thought letting the images play out and bring someone to say, “Well, what’s Worldchanging.com, with these images, have to do?” And hopefully inspire people to go to that website. So Worldchanging.com, and building that blog, and it is a blog, and I’m hoping that it isn’t – I don’t see it as the kind of blog where we’re all going to follow each other to death. This one is one that will spoke out, and will go out, and to start reaching. Because right now there’s conversations in India, in China, in South America – there’s entries coming from all around the world. I think there’s a chance to have a dialogue, a conversation about sustainability at Worldchanging.com. And anything that you can do to promote that would be fantastic.
Wish two is more of the bottom-up, ground-up one that I’m trying to work with. And this one is: I wish to launch a groundbreaking competition that motivates kids to invest ideas on, and invent ideas on, sustainability. And one of the things that came out – Allison, who actually nominated me, said something earlier on in a brainstorming. She said that recycling in Canada had a fantastic entry into our psyche through kids between grade four and six. And you think about it, you know, grade four – my wife and I, we say age seven is the age of reason, so they’re into the age of reason. And they’re pre-puberty. So it’s this great window where they actually are – you can influence them.
So my thinking here is that we try to motivate those kids to start driving home ideas. Let them understand what sustainability is, and that they have a vested interest in it to happen. And one of the ways I thought of doing it is to use my prize, so I would take 30,000 or 40,000 dollars of the winnings, and the rest is going to be to manage this project. But to use that as prizes for kids to get into their hands. But the other thing that I thought would be fantastic was to create these – call them prize targets. And so one could be for the best sustainable idea for an in-school project. The best one for a household project. Or it could be the best community project for sustainability.
And what would happen – it’s a scalable thing. And if we can get people to put in things – whether it’s equipment, like a media lab, or money to make the prize significant enough – and to open it up to all the schools that are public schools, or schools that are with kids that age, and make it a wide-open competition for them to go after those prizes and to submit them. And the prize has to be a verifiable thing. In that way, what’s happening is that we’re motivating a certain age group to start thinking. And they’re going to push that up, from the bottom – up into, I believe, into the households. And parents will be reacting to it, and trying to help them with the projects.
And I think it starts to motivate the whole idea towards sustainability in a very positive way, and starts to teach them. They know about recycling now, but they don’t really, I think, get sustainability in all the things, and the energy footprint, and how that matters. And to teach them, to me, would be a fantastic wish, and it would be something that I would certainly put my shoulder into. So I think it has a great opportunity to engage the imaginations – and great ideas, I think, come from kids – and engage their imagination into a project, and do something for schools. I think all schools could use extra equipment, extra cash – it’s going to be an incentive for them to do that.
And wish three is Imax film. So I was told I should do one for myself, and I’ve always wanted to actually get involved with doing something. And the scale of my work, and the kinds of ideas I’m playing with – when I first saw an Imax film, I almost immediately thought, “There’s a real resonance between what I’m trying to do, and the scale of what I try to do as a photographer.” And I think there’s a real possibility to make a powerful – to reach new audiences if I had a chance. So I’m looking, really, for a mentor, because I just had my birthday. I’m 50, and I don’t have time to go back to school right now – I’m too busy. So I need somebody who can put me on a quick catch-up course on how to do something like that, and lead me through the maze of how one does something like this. That would be fantastic. So those are my three wishes.