Documenting the changing face of water

We speak to photographer Edward Burtynsky about his latest collaboration with director Jennifer Baichwal, Watermark, a documentary that explores how humans interact with water.



Whether you’ve watched the award-winning documentary Manufactured Landscapes, which explores humanity’s footprint on the environment, are a fan of TED talks or you simply know your Canadian photographers, the name Edward Burtynsky should ring a few bells.

Over the past three decades, Burtynsky has managed to capture our changing landscape — and the effects of “progress” and manufacturing — on film. And although his images are beautiful, they’re conflicting, as they normally document destruction and altered natural spaces. His photos provide necessary reflection on how we use natural resources and our place in the environment.

Since 2009, he’s shifted his focus to water and the results of his exploration have not only produced exhibits, but a book and also a film, Watermark — his second collaboration with Manufactured Landscapes director Jennifer Baichwal.

I spoke to Burtynsky about his latest project and his journey into filmmaking over the phone earlier this week.

Kayla Marie Hillier: When you started working on Watermark, did you always know you’d want to work with Jennifer Baichwal again?
Edward Burtynsky: We never were sure, but I think we always liked the idea of working together again. We tried working on a project on oil but we couldn’t get the financing. And then I got caught up in the project, trying to finish it. With the water project, we started it before I had finished. For two years, the film and my stills project were running concurrently, so that we could maximize our efforts.

Kumbh Mela festival
Kumbh Mela festival

KMH: Why make the transition into film?
EB: I always liked the idea of film and I liked the kind of films that Jennifer was making. I thought if I was going to learn about making films… learn from the people who make the kind of films that you like. We’ve found that working together has been a treat and we’ve learned a lot. I think I’ve certainly been able to impart a lot of my philosophies, the way I work as a still photographer, and she’s imparted a lot of her philosophy as a filmmaker.

KMH: What led to water?
EB: Well, it seemed to be a natural next place to go after doing something as crazy and ambitious as oil. I did a project on oil and I thought, “Water’s even more critical to our survival on the planet than oil is to the movement of people and merchandise and food — to keep us all going.” So oil and natural gas are key drivers of that, and I tried to make a series of images that spoke to those ideas. And then looking at water and seeing what was happening to water around the world, endless stories of too much, or too little — I’d been exposed to some pretty incredible stories when I was in Australia, the effect that 10 years of drought was having on that continent. Water was again an interesting thing for me to shape a story around. I wasn’t sure how when I started, but like most journeys you start with your first step, start building your ideas, reading and talking to people and looking at stuff. I was constantly circling around those: reading, talking, looking.

Rice farming
Rice farming

KMH: Did you always intend to create discourse and reflection with your work?
EB: I always thought that I’d end up in film — or at least when I was 20-something at university, I started playing with film. And I knew I really liked it a lot, and I almost went down that road, but then felt I had more control over what I did as a photographer. I wanted to develop my ideas as a photographer and not have to put the idea through what I would call “the collaborative ringer,” right from the producer to the financiers, to the people who are performing, to the people who are helping you, the people that are editing. To keep your idea intact, it takes a lot of vision and a lot of confidence. Way back when, I just didn’t think I had it — that kind of confidence to get through all that and still have the idea I wanted. Thirty-some-odd years later, with a lot of experience under my belt — controlling work and controlling ideas — I felt I’m more ready to make films now, although kind of late in life.

I like the process, I like what it does but the process is tedious. Editing hundreds of hours of footage and logging it all, trying to figure out what the best stuff is in there and getting it all together and sequencing it in a way that all makes sense, and putting it to music — it is a lot of work. I have a deep respect for how much it takes to make a film these days — a good one anyway. You can make a film fast and cheap, but to make a good film, where you fret over every second, and every sound and every voice and every word that’s being said — it’s a lot of work and a lot of thinking. It’s a labour of love. ■

Watermark opens Friday, Oct. 11

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