Edward Burtynsky’s photographs explore the mechanisms and environmental legacies of heavy industry. His landmark ‘Shipbreaking’ series from 2000 documents the industry of dismantling and recycling ships in Bangladesh, and remains one of his most poignant bodies of work. In the series, we are presented with large, pin-sharp landscape photographs, with a grand sense of scale, objective detachment and a desaturated colour palette of rusty oranges, cool blues and steely greys. Today, thirteen years after the work was made, ‘Shipbreaking’ continues to take on significance in light of increasing environmental insecurity, and the home truths of Bangladesh’s exploited workforce – something we have most recently been reminded of with the Dhaka factory disaster.
According to The Economist, the dismantling of ships in Bangladesh began when a Greek ship, the MD Alpine, washed up on the beach in Chittagong in the 1960s. Locals flocked to these expansive mudflats and began salvaging what they could. An idea was born and a few years later, the cheap and large workforce Bangladesh provided, coupled with the flat and expansive natural landscape, quickly saw Chittagong become a huge center for shipbreaking. So much so that in 2008 the industry there accounted for around half of all the ships scrapped in the world.
The process of shipbreaking allows for vast quantities of material to be recycled; the steel hulls are dismantled, and go to re-rolling mills to be transformed into reinforcement bars for the construction industry and the oil in the bilges is taken out (by hand and bucket). Very few of the physical parts of the ships go to waste. This is not to say, however, that there are no by-products and negative ramifications – both environmental and human. The ships often contain asbestos (common in shipbuilding into the 80s) and other substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls, which are not recycled. The costs involved in dealing with such materials in countries with progressive (or even basic) human rights laws, trump the financial benefits of recycling the materials in such places. In countries such as Bangladesh, however, which sadly have less regulated safety measures, it is still a financially profitable, and thus rampant, enterprise. Whereas many of Burtysnky’s landscapes are void of people, the inclusion of figures in his ‘Shipbreaking’ series provides not only a sense of scale, but also recognition of the human aspect of the industry.
Contextually, Burtynsky builds upon the earlier principles of the New Topographics (a group of American photographers in the 70s who began photographing the manufactured, rather than natural, landscape), which he imbues with the look and feel of the Dusseldorf School (famous for their objective viewpoint). Positioned between these two epochs – though perhaps without the innovation of the former, nor quite the aesthetic authenticity of the latter – his photographs hover between environmental documentary photography and fine art photography; they concentrate on environmental themes, but are exhibited in galleries as art objects (with high production values and in limited editions). Contemporary photography is at its most powerful when the aesthetic and conceptual coexist to deliver a thoughtful message or idea. All landscape photography today, however sublime, will always encourage a corresponding feeling of insecurity as to the human and environmental cost of heavy industry. Burtyksnky’s photographs perfectly, and succinctly illustrate this point.
Edward Burtynsky is known as one of Canada’s most respected photographers. His remarkable photographic depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of over fifty major museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California.
Born in 1955 of Ukrainian heritage at St. Catharines, Ontario, Burtynsky is a graduate of Ryerson University (Bachelor of Applied Arts in Photography) and studied Graphic Art at Niagara College in Welland. He links his early exposure to the sites and images of the General Motors plant in his hometown to the development of his photographic work. His imagery explores the intricate link between industry and nature, combining the raw elements of mining, quarrying, manufacturing, shipping, oil production and recycling into eloquent, highly expressive visions that find beauty and humanity in the most unlikely of places.
Biography and images courtesy and © Edward Burtyknsky. www.edwardburtynsky.com.