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Edward Burtynsky has a flair for the macro, a way of standing back and showing the whole picture from a distance in a way that reveals patterns, colors, the bigness of structures we are too deeply immersed in to ever attempt to gain perspective. His latest project, Watermark, a film about humanity’s relationship with water, is no different. Collecting stories from around the world, Burtynsky and co-director Jennifer Baichwal engage in a dialogue about one of the planet’s most important elements—how it’s shaped our past and how we, depending on which paths we decide to take, will shape its future.
Having documented the planet’s changing landscape since the early ‘80s, Burtynsky has always been interested in showcasing how nature is transformed by industry— how we reconfigure landscapes in the process of creating things. Though he didn’t set out to be “pro-environment,” his work, collected over time, has served as evidence as to how the world is changing every decade, and the speed at which it is now doing so. Part visual artist, part happenstance activist, Burtynsky’s work does not force a message upon you, but presents it with subtlety, like someone who simply holds you by the shoulders and points you in the right direction, instead of grabbing your head and sticking your nose in it.
The result of Watermark—and his accompanying book, Water—is a series of moving images rife with complexity. Simultaneously presenting the grandeur of the world with our least savory impacts on it, we are confronted with a dilemma: Must nature continue to suffer at our expense? And at which point will we begin to suffer in turn? In the words of Burtynsky himself: “[We] come from nature… there is an importance to having a certain reverence for nature because we are connected to it… If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”
Time to step back and see the bigger picture.
Images courtesy of Edward Burtynsky.