Edward Burtynsky is one of the better-known contemporary Canadian photographers. People in and outside the industry have marveled at his still and moving images that show the devastating impacts humans have had on nature. His work is at once stunning and revolting. "Manufactured Landscapes," his photo and documentary project on the consequences of industrialization produced in the first half of the aughts, was, for many, an awakening: our footprint was, is, colossal. Three years ago, he released "Watermark", which explores our relationship with water, reminding us of its importance, to us and to the whole fauna and flora, and that it should not be taken for granted.
Now, he's working on a new project "Anthropocene." To make the case that humans have ushered the planet into a new geological era, he's embraced new technologies, from 3D printing to virtual reality. As he recounted his experience filming the largest burning of illegal ivory tusks in Kenya, from which he had just returned and enthusiastically explained the mandate of his new studio Think2Thing, I was reminded of the enduring role storytellers, journalists, photographers, filmmakers, artists, and the likes have in raising awareness and provoking discomfort, so that we do not resign ourselves to the status quo.
VICE: At the end of April, Kenya's President set ablaze 105 tons of illegal elephant ivory and more than one ton of poached rhino horns. What compelled you to capture this historical moment?
Edward Burtynsky: I'm currently working on a multimedia project that involves a feature documentary film, a book, an exhibition, which on top of having prints on the walls offers new experiences such as virtual reality and 3D. It explores the idea of the "Anthropocene." Humanity spent the last 11,000 years in a stable period called the Holocene. But geologists are now saying that we should think of the present as a time of change for the state of the planet. We're entering the "Anthropocene." The whole project tries to define what are the characteristics of this event, what we are doing that is bringing this event forward and how is this event revealing itself from the sediments to the atmosphere. One of the ways to go about it is to look at extinction. The last time we had such a big extinction was over 60 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared. A meteor impact hit the planet and created a dark decade. Now, rather than a meteor impact, extinction is brought about by humans. We are the event. The elephants, for instance, have been dropping at a rate of approximately 12 percent per year because they're being hunted by and large for their tusks. The Kenyan burning of ivory stockpile is a response to that, a way to take ivory off the market.
Yet, many critics have said that destroying the seized tusks won't actually stop the poaching of elephants.
I don't think it will; but it does bring awareness. By making people realize that this is a terrible problem that is happening right now, you can bring that story to the buyers of ivory, to the people who have some control over borders and who can stop the flow of ivory. You have to bring attention to the problem because if you don't, then nothing happens. It's a desperate measure in desperate times. Everybody that was there hopes that we'll never have to have another one like this.
Authorities estimated that about 12,000 tusks were being burned, about 6,000 elephants. Since it is believed that 25,000 elephants are killed annually, this represents only a quarter of the yearly destruction of herds by humans. So, the people present were by and large saddened by the fact that humans can't keep their hands off these magnificent animals because it's worth so much money. The piles of burnt ivory were valued at over 150 million dollars.