Saturday, 10 May 2014

Our Relationship with Water

Colorado River Delta #2 shows water from the ocean trying to reach the river
Just came back from the Asia Society where I watched a screening of Watermark by Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal. The duo had collaborated on Manufactured Landscapes where Burtynsky was the subject taking photographs of China and exploring where all our goods had come from.

The documentary received raved reviews, and thrust Burtynsky's name out into the global limelight. I'd never heard of him myself until that I watched that film and am glad it introduced me to his images that are terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Xiaolangdi Dam #1, spewing out water from the Yellow River
His large-scale photographs show the immense scale of things, but also minute detail because his pictures are so sharp. For me his keen interest in what is happening in China and his amazing access to construction projects from dams to shipyards are fascinating, giving us viewers an insight into places we have never been to or never will go to.

In 2006 Burtynsky was working on a project on oil, how we extract it, what we use it for, how it impacts our environment. Then he happened to be in Australia when the droughts were happening and the photographers he was with at the time were photojournalists covering the impact of the droughts on farmers.

He explained that once water disappeared from their land or access to water was gone, that was the end of their livelihood on the land. The land couldn't be sold either and some farmers committed suicide. Seeing these things happen made Burtynsky think about water and our relationship to it.

Then two years later National Geographic contacted him, asking if he was interested in photographing on the subject of water in California. He did a year of research and then 10 months on and off of taking pictures there.

He showed the images of Baichwal and they thought they could be the basis of their next film.

Xiluodu Dam #1 that is six times larger than the Hoover
It starts with the mighty Yellow River in China, roaring as it comes down, the water coming out in clumps looking like the outstretched forelegs of a lion. And then this image is immediately contrasted with a parched barren riverbed in Mexico.

Watermark examines our relationship with water, as Burtynsky says, how we use it, abuse it, how we relate to it spiritually or for entertainment. They did a lot of research to figure out the best way to tell vignettes about water, but also avoiding cliched images and trying to find those that viewers would have little or no opportunity to see.

Thus we visit the construction of the Xiluodu, the biggest arched dam in the world that is six times larger than the Hoover. We also go to Greenland and talk to scientists about why they study the ice thousands of metres deep. And we see the horrific environmental effects of tanneries in Bangladesh, and 30 million people descending on the Ganges River in the hopes that their sins will be washed away.

Pivot Irrigation #11, in High Plains, Texas Panhandle
We also visit an abalone farm off the coast of Fujian province, and the pristine watersheds in British Columbia and learn about the lives of the people there, and how bizarre area in California, where everyone has a waterfront property.

To get the scale, the filmmakers used helicopters, cessnas, and more importantly remote helicopters, basically drones to photograph and film many sequences and the effects add not only to the poetic nature of the film, but also make us realize how small we are.

Burtynsky explains that 70 percent of the world's water is used for agriculture and 70 percent of that is used to grow the food for the animals we eat. Other statistics he had was that Canada has 32 percent of the world's fresh water, while China only has 8 percent. The mainland used to have 50,000 rivers, but now only 25,000, and many of them you can't even dip your hand in them, they're so contaminated.

Rice Terraces #2 in Western Yunnan province
He and Baichwal hope Watermark will get people to think about water the next time they drink some, turn on the tap, have a shower, jump into a swimming pool. We have to be careful with this precious resource.

I plan to see his exhibition at Sundaram Tagore Gallery soon, and have a chance to see Burtynsky's arresting images up close.

Edward Burtynsky: Water
Until June 21, 2014
Sundaram Tagore Gallery
57-59 Hollywood Road


  1. Thanks for letting me know about the exhibition of Burtynsky's photographs at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery. Have to say I prefer his photography to his film direction. Even so, the latter's pretty respectable! :)

    1. He admits that he's more a photographer than a filmmaker, but he enjoyed the experience of making a film and in a way extends his work into another dimension...