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TEDGlobal 2009

Edward Burtynsky: Photographing the landscape of oil

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Views 482,815

In stunning large-format photographs, Edward Burtynsky follows the path of oil through modern society, from wellhead to pipeline to car engine -- and then beyond to the projected peak-oil endgame.

- Photographer
2005 TED Prize winner Edward Burtynsky has made it his life's work to document humanity's impact on the planet. His riveting photographs, as beautiful as they are horrifying, capture views of the Earth altered by mankind. Full bio

I started my journey 30 years ago.
00:15
And I worked in mines. And I realized that
00:18
this was a world unseen.
00:20
And I wanted, through color and large format cameras
00:22
and very large prints,
00:24
to make a body of work that somehow
00:26
became symbols of our
00:28
use of the landscape,
00:31
how we use the land.
00:33
And to me this was
00:35
a key component that somehow, through this medium of photography,
00:37
which allows us to contemplate these landscapes,
00:40
that I thought photography was perfectly suited
00:43
to doing this type of work.
00:46
And after 17 years of photographing large industrial landscapes,
00:48
it occurred to me that
00:52
oil is underpinning the scale and speed.
00:54
Because that is what has changed,
00:56
is the speed at which we're taking all our resources.
00:58
And so then I went out to develop a whole series
01:01
on the landscape of oil.
01:03
And what I want to do is to kind of map an arc
01:05
that there is extraction, where we're taking it from the ground,
01:10
refinement. And that's one chapter.
01:13
The other chapter that I wanted to look at was
01:15
how we use it -- our cities,
01:17
our cars, our motorcultures,
01:19
where people gather around the vehicle
01:21
as a celebration.
01:25
And then the third one is this idea of the end of oil,
01:27
this entropic end,
01:29
where all of our parts of cars, our tires,
01:31
oil filters,
01:34
helicopters, planes --
01:36
where are the landscapes where all of that stuff ends up?
01:38
And to me, again, photography was
01:41
a way in which I could explore and research the world,
01:43
and find those places.
01:46
And another idea that I had as well,
01:48
that was brought forward by an ecologist --
01:50
he basically did a calculation where
01:54
he took one liter of gas and said,
01:57
well, how much carbon it would take, and how much organic material?
01:59
It was 23 metric tons for one liter.
02:03
So whenever I fill up my gas,
02:06
I think of that liter, and how much carbon.
02:08
And I know that oil comes from the ocean and phytoplankton,
02:10
but he did the calculations for our Earth
02:13
and what it had to do to produce that amount of energy.
02:16
From the photosynthetic growth,
02:18
it would take 500 years of that growth
02:20
to produce what we use, the 30 billion barrels we use per year.
02:23
And that also brought me to the fact that
02:28
this poses such a risk to our society.
02:30
Looking at 30 billion per year,
02:33
we look at our two largest suppliers,
02:38
Saudi Arabia and now Canada, with its dirty oil.
02:40
And together they only form about 15 years of supply.
02:42
The whole world, at 1.2 trillion estimated reserves,
02:46
only gives us about 45 years.
02:49
So, it's not a question of if, but a question of when
02:51
peak oil will come upon us.
02:54
So, to me, using photography --
02:56
and I feel that all of us need to now begin to really
02:58
take the task of using our talents,
03:01
our ways of thinking,
03:03
to begin to deal with what I think is probably
03:06
one of the most challenging issues of our time,
03:08
how to deal with our energy crisis.
03:11
And I would like to say that, on the other side of it,
03:13
30, 40 years from now, the children that I have,
03:15
I can look at them and say, "We did everything
03:17
we possibly, humanly could do,
03:19
to begin to mitigate this,
03:22
what I feel is one of the most important and critical
03:25
moments in our time. Thank you.
03:27
(Applause)
03:30

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About the speaker:

Edward Burtynsky - Photographer
2005 TED Prize winner Edward Burtynsky has made it his life's work to document humanity's impact on the planet. His riveting photographs, as beautiful as they are horrifying, capture views of the Earth altered by mankind.

Why you should listen

To describe Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's work in a single adjective, you have to speak French: jolie-laide. His images of scarred landscapes -- from mountains of tires to rivers of bright orange waste from a nickel mine -- are eerily pretty yet ugly at the same time. Burtynsky's large-format color photographs explore the impact of humanity's expanding footprint and the substantial ways in which we're reshaping the surface of the planet. His images powerfully alter the way we think about the world and our place in it.

With his blessing and encouragement, WorldChanging.com and others use his work to inspire ongoing global conversations about sustainable living. Burtynsky's photographs are included in the collections of over 50 museums around the world, including the Tate, London and the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York City. A large-format book, 2003's Manufactured Landscapes, collected his work, and in 2007, a documentary based on his photography, also called Manufactured Landscapes, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival before going on to screen at Sundance and elsewhere. It was released on DVD in March 2007. In 2008, after giving a talk at the Long Now Foundation, Burtynsky proposed "The 10,000 Year Gallery," which could house art to be curated over thousands of years preserved through carbon transfers in an effort to reflect the attitudes and changes of the world over time. 

When Burtynsky accepted his 2005 TED Prize, he made three wishes. One of his wishes: to build a website that will help kids think about going green. Thanks to WGBH and the TED community, the show and site Meet the Greens debuted at TED2007. His second wish: to begin work on an Imax film, which morphed into the jaw-dropping film Manufactured Landscapes with Jennifer Baichwal. And his third wish, wider in scope, was simply to encourage "a massive and productive worldwide conversation about sustainable living." Thanks to his help and the input of the TED community, the site WorldChanging.com got an infusion of energy that has helped it to grow into a leading voice in the sustainability community.

In 2016, he won a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts for his work.

More profile about the speaker
Edward Burtynsky | Speaker | TED.com