23 June 2007

Burtynsky & Politics Redux

Dam #6, Three Gorges Dam Project,
Yangtze River, 2005
© Edward Burtynsky

My recent post on Edward Burtynsky generated a number of longish, thoughtful replies, at least half of which disagreed pretty vigorously with me. Instead of adding to the comment thread I figured I would write another post. I guess the replies suggest why discussions at or about the intersection of politics and photography often seem mostly like a train wreck to me. I appreciate the comments because they are pushing me to try to be clearer. So, here goes ...

Joerg Colberg, with whom I have disagreed on this before, writes: “I simply don't see why Burtysnky would have to climb on a soap box and rant about waste and pollution when his photos show just that.” Nolan Smock agrees, saying: “Allowing these images to be associated with didactic rants would be a disservice.” And Miki Johnson herself also seconds Joerg’s assessment. (Arcim & Ed Nixon largely agree with Jeorg, too.) I don't think I could disagree with this convergence of views more strongly.

First, it is important not to identify “politics” - especially critical or progressive politics - with “rants” or “preaching.” If we do we’ve given up the battle, we’ve succumbed to the conservatives or the merely complacent who insist that we should stop “complaining” and simply be thankful that we are here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Dissent involves discussion and debate, speaking up and speaking out. Politics is about speech. And it is about using ideals and principles and commitments in ways that might shape the future for the better. We demean ourselves, we evacuate the public terrain of citizenship if we automatically characterize political speech reductively as “rants.”

Even if one thinks most of what passes for political speech in fact amounts to little more than ranting and preaching perhaps it is possible for photographers (and other visual artists) to alter that in big or small ways. Consider Salgado and Nachtwey, to take two photographers of Burtynsky’s stature. When they discuss the political implications of their work would you say that they “rant?” Are they up “on a soap box?” No. Both do, however, see themselves as engaged in politics in the broad sense I’ve been depicting. They both repeatedly proclaim that they hope their work will promote discussion and debate about political problems. Burtynsky, as we will see below, abjures even so restrained an aspiration.

Second, is environmental degradation of the sort that Burtynsky depicts less lethal, less of a humanly created catastrophe than war or famine or massive forced displacement? Would it be acceptable to simply remain non-committal (and, as I suggest below, that is precisely the stance Burtynsky strikes) about the latter sorts of events? Again, think of Salgado or Nachtwey. How would we judge them if they adopted so non-committal a stance regarding the political and economic implications of their photographs of devastation and mayhem? Why is it easier to let Burtynsky off the hook here (in say his pictures of large dams in China like the one I've lifted above) than it would be to allow Salgado or Nachtwey to remain analogously silent regarding, say, their images of corpses of cholera victims in Zairean refugee camps? I simply do not get this.

If you think it sheer hyperbole to compare the construction of big dams to refugee camps created in the wake of genocide, perhaps you should read Arundhati Roy’s essays on the topic (find her essays on "The Greater Common Good" at Outlook India) where she documents both the true technological idiocy of such projects and the way they target vulnerable populations. Perhaps you will think she is ranting and perhaps she ought to be. I actually find her writing on the topic pointed and reasonable and often extraordinarily funny. And lest you think it unseemly for photographers to speak up about such matters, please read the essay on Elliott Porter in Rebecca Solnit’s new book. Or read Robert Adams's interviews and essays. Neither Porter nor Adams seems remotely to be a ranter or preacher. Neither was an activist - the prospect of which seems to worry other commentors - Ed & Arcim. But neither refused public comment as Burtynsky seems to do.

Since the other commentors essentially endorse Joerg's remarks I will take issue with some of what he says. In particular I want to contest the notion that it is "obvious" what Burtynsky is up to. In so doing, I will set aside a disagreement I have with him about the relative impact of small vs large scale items in the creation of our carbon footprints.

To start I will recommend this brief audio clip of an intriguing 2005 interview with Burtynsky that's been posted over at lensculture. The interview is about Burtynsky's recent work in China. In it he addresses some of the themes (e.g., matters of gaining access to China) that commentators raised in the comment thread oon my earlier post. It also offers, I think, insight into why Burtynsky affords so provocative an example for discussion. I want to make it clear that I find his work incredible in visual terms. I also think that, as the interview makes clear, he has pretty firm sympathies with those for whom environmental degradation is, as he puts it, "a global concern." On his account - which I have no reason to doubt - he was quite straightforward with high government officials in China about that concern. Burtynsky claims to have warned the Chinese not to repeat the environmental errors that we in the west have made in our pursuit of progress. In that sense he provides a commendable example.

But let's pay attention to how Burtynsky talks about his photographic work. It is (I think, and as I already have intimated) fair to say that he is pretty much entirely non-commital. Here are some passages from the interview (with apologies for minor transcription errors I might've made):
"I like to keep the work - and I think visual art is particularly suited to kind of keeping the reading of it somewhat open. To make it overly political, and say 'this is wrong,' is too simplistic . ..."

"[T]he work could be seen as a critique or it could also be seen as what they're celebrating in terms of their transition ... because they could look at that and say 'look we've joined the rest of the world' ..."
Earlier on, discussing the industrialization and urbanization he depicts in China, and the displacement caused by large dams in particular, Burtynsky suggests "one can read both good and bad in that" and rationalizes this by noting "there's a consequence to progress." [I could not have made that up except I suggested something quite like it in my initial post.] As with the images in his earlier project Manufactured Landscapes he very strenuously resists the notion that his photographs are "an indictment." My point is that Joerg is infering from the photographs something that their maker, at least, hardly thinks they portray. Joerg is perhaps correct (I personally would like to think that most folks saw what Burtynsky depicts as "waste and pollution." I simply don't think they do.) But, if we are to take Burtynsky at his word, what Joerg thinks is "obvious" is not quite that. If Joerg is correct, Burtynsky has failed.

In this interview Burtynsky operates with a sort of dualistic view of politics. Either it is a command driven, top down enterprise of the sort practiced by totalitarian regimes or it is characterized by a "cacophony" and "anarchy" of views, as under capitalism. This too seems a caricature of politics. Perhaps democratic politics can shape and constraint the cacophony of views in ways that are less objectionable than coercive techniques deployed by dictatorships? That would allow Burtynsky, like Salgado, Nachtwey, Porter or Adams, to speak out in ways that might address fellow citizens. But that brings us back to where I began.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's really surprising to me that Burtynsky is so straight-forward to Chinese officials about his concerns, yet he's still allowed access to the places he photographs/has photographed.

He'd be banned from everywhere if he were in the states doing that sort of thing.

I was thinking earlier that maybe half the reason he is so quiet on the issues is so word doesn't get around and he could continue to photograph that sort of subject matter. Guess that's not the case, though.

24 June, 2007 22:47  
Blogger tim atherton said...


I think taking such a non-committal stance allows him to do just that. And I don't think it's just the "talking about it all " aspect of it either. I think much of the work itself embodies this non-committal stance in a way that say Nachtwey or R Adams doesn't - worse, it uses beauty as a way of doing so.

Activists down through to those who just feel uncomfortable with the massive industrialisation in say China, or the huge dam projects can look at his work and say to themselves - see - it shows the terrible enormous impact of all these things. etc

Industrialists and power brokers and politicians party officials can say - look how beautiful and efficient our factories are. Look how magnificent our gigantic projects are. etc

Having listened to him talk first hand and answer questions about the china work, this was very much the view that came across to me.

24 June, 2007 23:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim was exaggerating when he said that Burtynsky had access to "high government officials in China." At best he spoke to a medium level bureaucrat. Not many people in the world have access to high level Chinese officials, and definitely not some Western artist.

What I find frightening in this debate is how intolerant Jim seems to be toward an artist who might not have a generic left-leaning view. So what if Burtynsky's photos suggest a celebration of China's emergence as a major industrial power? That is a perfectly legitimate way to view these images. Try to imagine what a source of pride China's industrialization and emergence as a global power has on the Chinese people. The dam project, as Burtynsky correctly noted, is hailed in China as the second Great Wall. It is not, as Tim suggested, a source of pride that's limited to party officials, politicians, etc. but a source of pride for the entire Chinese nation starting from Hu Jintao down to the local tofu stalls in Beijing.

25 June, 2007 00:19  
Blogger Stan B. said...

If Burtynsky's "political" silence does, in fact, buy him access, more power to him. The images stand on their own, and people will get from them whatever they put into them (not unlike Elliot Erwitt's classic film, Beauty Knows No Pain).

But it's one damn crying shame when the simple act of talking honestly about a particular work or subject automatically labels one a radical fanatic of the most extreme order. This "logic" leaves unchallenged all the "fair and balanced" vitriol that passes for discourse, and... fact, these days. How many Americans still believe Iraq was complicit on 9/11?

25 June, 2007 02:26  
Blogger Sarah said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

25 June, 2007 02:54  
Blogger Sarah said...

I wonder then how strong a statement either way these photos are, when the the person who chose to preserve the moments he did can't decide what and why it is he's sharing.

25 June, 2007 02:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd hate to break up the consensus about Burtynsky's silence and presumed non-committal stance, but I listened to the interview on Lensculture and found him perfectly lucid about his position regarding the global issues he addresses in his work and what he aims to achieve with his work. I wonder what else you expect him to do.

25 June, 2007 08:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

“I like to keep the work… and I think visual art is particularly suited to kind of keeping the reading of it somewhat open, that to make it overly political, and saying ‘This is wrong,’ I think is too simplistic. And also, to take that book and turn it into an indictment wouldn’t be fair to them either because I don’t see it as an indictment, but I do see it as a global concern. As this country (China) embraces a system that we created, we in the West know the consequences if you don’t do it right.”

Ed Burtynsky speaking for himself in the Lensculture interview.

25 June, 2007 09:56  
Blogger tim atherton said...

I'd hate to break up the consensus about Burtynsky's silence and presumed non-committal stance, but I listened to the interview on Lensculture and found him perfectly lucid about his position regarding the global issues he addresses in his work and what he aims to achieve with his work

really? I don't think you could flip flop and be more ambiguous about your ideas, reasons and motives if you tried - which is exactly the same response I've experienced if you listen and talk to Burtynsky first hand.

I just can't see what the concept is behind his work - it's almost worse than a crisp, clear picture of a fuzzy concept - it's close to a non-concept. And this shows in the work - it's beautiful but cold and empty - like a big beautiful facade. There's nothing of consequence behind it. He seems concerned only with appearances, which isn't the case with apparently similar work such as Gursky or Struth or Misrach. Ultimately, I think biggest single flaw is that the work doens't come across as honest, which only emphasises its echoing emptiness.

In part this is because it does lack a clear concept, in part, I think it is a bit of a sell-out. The lack of clarity and intentional ambiguity about purpose is a pragmatic decision. I'm sure the work sells very well to corporate collection precisely because it can be read either way by whoever wants to look at it and beautiful industry and the "stunning" post-industrial world sells.

BTW, the NY Times had an interesting review here

25 June, 2007 10:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To equate Burtynsky's work with the work of gore perverts like Salgado and Nachtwey is sickening. The only reason those perverts justify their work with activist platitudes is because people would be raising some serious eyebrows if they didn't. You should read the book SHUTTER BABE to get an inside look into the people who make a living out of shooting disgusting corpses of diseased and mutilated bodies.

Do yourself a favor and don't ever say Chinese progress is genocide in China to a Chinese. I bet you will not like the response.

25 June, 2007 10:37  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I did not say "Chinese progress" was genocide. I said that genocide causes mass dislocation in ways analogous to large technology projects like the dam construction Burtynsky depicts. And, in fact, such dams generate nearly none of the benefits that are claimed for them (which is why I suggested Arundhati Roy - who documents the claims). I would also bet the the location decisions for the dam projects have massive consequences on some portions of the population as opposed to others - based on characteristics that are arbitrary.

As for calling Salgado and Nachtwey "perverts", I guess you are entitled to your view, but it is a lonely place you occupy.

Mrs. Dean

I find Burtynsky's views about his work to be waffling in an almost unbeleievable way. He may be clear about his personal views - although I find him ambiguous on that score too. But he simply makes no claim for his work with regard to its implications either for the phenomena he depicts or the political processes that might influence our views of "progress" or "development" or so on. And on that last note he is remaining non-commmittal quite purposefully. The notion that the options are silence or indictment seems self-serving to me. And that is how Burtynsky frames the possibilities. He is too intelligent and insighful to be doing that thoughtlessly.

25 June, 2007 10:59  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Mrs Deane, you wrote: "I wonder what else you expect him to do."

That is fair enough. How about starting with the extremely reasonable sort of response that others offer when asked about the political implications of their work. They don't say "Gee, I don't really think there are determinate implications, how viewers interpret my images is wholly open ended ..." Others (e.g., Salgado, Nachtwey) say, something like "I hope my work prompts discussion and debate about the subject (e.g., famine,, war, genocide, mass dislocation, environmental degradation, etc), I hope it prompts viewers to ask hard questions of themselves and their political and economic institutions, ...." That is a far cry from anything Burtynsky says. And it hardly amounts to preaching or ranting. It is asking for political discussion. (So we need not worry about the spectre of paternalism that commentors tacitly invoke when they reduce political statements to ranting or preaching.)

Burtynsky might also take actions like the one Robert Adams took when he won the Deutsche Borse Prize ...

Having said all that, I want to be very clear that the issue here is not Ed Burtynsky per se; He obviously is an extremely talented photographer and seemingly (I do not know him personally) a very decent man. ... I have been using his work as one example of what I take to be a pervasive conundrum that regularly emerges at the intersection of politics and photography.

25 June, 2007 11:15  
Blogger drew said...


The discussion of Burtynsky's photography, and indeed his photographs themselves, have gotten me to thinking about Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins et al. --- the great landscape photographers of the late nineteenth-century American West. All three of these men, and others, went to work for the railroads and set out to record the building of the intercontinental rail lines, the topography of the West, and at least at the periphery of their work, the plight of Native American populations "pushed aside" by progress, etc. It's the a very similar story to the one Burtynsky finds again and again in China, the one he suggests that the West has already lived through, learned from, and presumably moved past. Problem is, it's not like this is a uniquely Chinese story, a set of problems and politics for the Chinese alone to recognize and face up to. The West is as intertwined in the industrialization of modern China, as Chinese laborers were in the building of the American west --- only in different and much more complicated ways. I don't think Burtynsky would deny this, but I agree with both you and Tim that in leaving his work so open to interpretation, he puts way too much trust in (a) his audience and/or (b) the existence of an audience at all.

Martha Sandweiss has noted of those 19th photographers and their works: "What the photographs would lay out before American eyes, however, was not just the West's topography but a visual story that affirmed and expanded the central fictions of 19th. c. western history." This perspective seems more than a little bit helpful in thinking about Burtynsky and his work ... whose fictions might his photographs "affirm and expand"? It's an interesting question, and the fact that it isn't entirely answerable is, I think, part of your (in my opinion, quite understandable) concern.

Let me raise one more point of contrast, this one contemporary. I'd suggest a comparison between Burtynsky's work and the aerial photographs Emmet Gowin. Next to the cold, calculated, even soulless feel of some of Burtynsky's work, Gowin's b/w shots of nuclear test sites, large-scale irrigation projects, and other "brutalized " landscapes are stunning, resonant, and deeply haunting. In a prefatory note to his published collection of these photos, entitled "Changing the Earth," Gowin observes:

"In a landscape photograph, both the mind and the heart need to find their proper place. Before the landscape we look for an invitation to stand with premeditation. It is always, in some sense, our home. At times, we may look for an architecture of light and a poetry of atmosphere which welcomes the eye into a landscape of natural process. It may also be the map --- the evidence of the thing itself; may it also, always be a vision of the double world --- the world of appearances and the invisible world all at once. Even when the landscape is greatly disfigured or brutalized, it is always deeply animated from within. When one really sees an awesome, vast, and terrible place, we tremble at the feelings we experience as our sense of wholeness is reorganized by what we see. The heart seems to withdraw and the body seems always to diminish. At such a moment, our feelings reach for an understanding.
This is the gift of a landscape photograph, that the heart finds a place to stand."

This isn't politics of the soap box variety, I admit. But I believe that what Gowin has in mind when he talks about the heart is the same thing that James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when they spoke about love. We are in Robert Adams territory here, as you yourself noted ... and that is something admirable, indeed.

25 June, 2007 15:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Others (e.g., Salgado, Nachtwey) say, something like "I hope my work prompts discussion and debate about the subject (e.g., famine,, war, genocide, mass dislocation, environmental degradation, etc), I hope it prompts viewers to ask hard questions of themselves and their political and economic institutions, ....

In my reading of his words, Burtynsky is saying the same thing as Salgado c.s., even if he doesn't spell it out literally. I listened to the interview and had no trouble reading that between the lines. It surely mustn't always be necessary to spell these things out in whole sentence. To my ears he is saying that he hopes his work starts a discussion about the large scale impacts of the developments in China. BTW I find it a bit unsettling to see how other people cannot read between the lines the same things as I can. Language is so utterly unreliable when you come to think of it...

I have been using his work as one example of what I take to be a pervasive conundrum that regularly emerges at the intersection of politics and photography.

I can totally see why pervasive conundrum irks you, but in my view you could better have chosen another man for the job of exemplification. Now if you would have used Delahaye with his professed avoidance of discussions (as can be read in the conversation Joerg had with him), I would have made no objections...

25 June, 2007 15:34  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took this onto my home turf and wrote about it on my blog.

I'm admittedly in over my head with this issue, but I do enjoy the conversation going on here.

25 June, 2007 16:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Prompted by Nolan (THANKS!) I went to the TED site to check out Burtynsky's wish list:

"WISH ONE: I wish my artwork could persuade millions of people to join a global conversation about sustainability

Goal: To encourage a massive and productive worldwide conversation about sustainable living."

Why doesn't he say something like this when interviewers ask him what he hopes to accomplish with his work? Compare this to the interview from lensculture which is full of ambivalence and evasion. I really do not get it.

You can find the site for 2005 TED winners here:

25 June, 2007 18:15  
Blogger tim atherton said...

Why doesn't he say something like this when interviewers ask him what he hopes to accomplish with his work? Compare this to the interview from lensculture which is full of ambivalence and evasion. I really do not get it.

Exactly the same in a three hour talk, projected show and Q&A session - despite some very specific questions about what is your work about and what are its aims.

Then I've heard him interviewed on the radio here and he gives a somewhat different slant again.

I think the model is the chameleon - it's whatever is expedient.

The TED awards are in some aspects quite geared towards activism - so you become an activist (remember another 2005 winner was Bono) at the TED's.

Ultimately, I think this shows in the work, which as I said before is often quite beautiful, but over time is revealed to be more of a facade, a hollow shell.

25 June, 2007 19:33  

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