Edward Burtynsky felt the need to get to the heart of China’s unprecedented economic boom.
While much has been written about the gigantic potential of China’s massive manufacturing economy, a relative few Western observers have ventured into the country to photograph that boom from the inside of its factories, pit mines and waste dumps.
Burtynsky, known for his landscape photos of industrial sites, had long been searching for a reason to shoot in China. The manufacturing explosion in that country over the past decade offered the perfect opportunity to capture what he viewed as a sea change in Chinese society.
While China had been set on an agrarian course by the late communist leader Mao Zedong after the revolution of 1949 — followed by a huge population explosion — over the past decade the country has made a dramatic shift towards urbanization with millions of Chinese migrating to seek prosperity in the country’s sprawling cities.
True to his trademark style, Burtynsky focused on industrial wastelands that few would consider photo-worthy over the course of numerous visits to China between 2002 and 2005.
The new film Manufactured Landscapes, directed by Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (Let It Come Down: The Life Of Paul Bowles) follows Burtynsky on his journey, negotiating with local officials at almost every turn to gain access to otherwise un-photographed sites.
“I felt that stills, especially highly-resolved, large still images, tell a story in a different way and they allow you to ponder it and think about it and engage with it as an individual,” Burtynsky explains. “I thought it was the perfect medium ... when you say China is the manufacturer to the world, what does it look like?”
That story, he recounts, is one of both enormous potential and horrific consequences.
While Burtynsky had the chance to view first-hand the booming engine of Chinese development, he was also exposed the enormous environmental changes wrought by the by-products of that expansion.
But the Toronto-based photographer insists his mission was not one of social commentary, but rather objective observation.
“To be fair to those who let me in, I didn’t go there to indict (the Chinese), I went there to show the scope of what we do as humans,” Burtynsky says.
“A piece of film sits there and makes us think about the environment and makes us think of ourselves as a species of the world and what we're doing in it.”
• Manufactured Landscapes opens in theatres today.