Photographer Edward Burtynsky Talks New H20 Documentary 'Watermark' (Q&A)


The Canadian photographer spoke with THR about his latest project, which sent him traveling the globe to discover how mankind's use of water is reshaping the planet, from massive dams to parched ecosystems.

Few people have taken a more macro view of the world than photographer Edward Burtynsky -- and what he’s seen and is now sharing is eye-popping.

As revealed in the just-out documentary Watermark, Burtynsky – often shooting from helicopters and planes and via drones – has traveled the globe to discover how water is used by mankind and how our use of water is remaking the planet. In the movie, which he directed with Jennifer Baichwal, the photographer and acclaimed cinematographer Nick de Pencier zoom out to show the monstrous size of China’s huge new Xiluodo Dam, the farms of California’s Imperial Valley (which would be desert without constantly imported water), the now-desiccated Colorado River Delta (a consequence of water going to the Imperial Valley) and the chemically polluted waters surrounding tanning facilities in Bangladesh. His photos mark the culmination of a five-year project for Burtynsky he has dubbed simply Water.

The Ontario-born photogapher, previously the subject of the 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, has long had an interest in the reshaping of the world by humans. He talks to The Hollywood Reporter about shooting the film with "toy remotes," huge sprawling abalone farms that also house whole villages and how in close the planet is to tipping over to a "horrific situation."

PHOTOS: The Images Behind Edward Burtynsky's Documentary 'Watermark'

So you must not be afraid of heights?

You got that right. I’m usually working with helicopters with the door off with me obviously strapped in with the seat belt and tethering, making sure the camera is tethered so if it fell out of my hands, it wouldn't crash into an urban center. We also used remote helicopters.

Would you say those remote helicopters are similar to drones?

When we were going to China we didn’t want to say “drone.” “Toy remotes,” we called them, which sounded less ominous. But these things were quite significant, probably six feet long. There's a unique kind of system where the whole camera is gyro-stabilized, always paying attention to the horizon line and oriented itself to the horizon line. It will still keep an absolutely steady bead on the horizon line so the camera doesn’t jump around.

How did you decide to do a long-term project on water?

Water, I always hoped to do when I was actually doing a project on oil, which we started in the mid-’90s and finished in, it was like 12 years in the making. I was also thinking it would be interesting to make a movie on oil, given I had just finished that project. When we were looking around in 2008, there were a lot of headwinds in terms of trying to find backers for a documentary when people were worried about whether the global currency would get going again.

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Did you shoot a lot of things around the world that no one had really seen from this perspective before?

Yeah, I think when we went up to the big arch dam six times bigger than the Hoover Dam, they told us we were the only film crew, the only guys who had ever gone there to film that huge dam being built. I don’t think, I’m almost 100 percent sure that nobody as well got aerial work of these huge kind of sprawling fish farms in China.

Those fish farms were enormous!

There's one where 25,000 people live there. You get out to these fish farms and there’s a school, kids and a restaurant. It's like a small village, but it’s on the water. We also shot the largest gathering in the world, the pilgrimage on the Ganges to cleanse sins. That’s once every 12 years with over 35 million people in attendance on that day. This is the largest human gathering on the planet, and that was quite remarkable to be there.

What do you take away from a project like this?

Well, the interesting thing is that the greatest single thing that we’ve done as humans to change the planet is through agriculture and farming, and I didn’t realize this. So if you look at human use of water, a full 70 percent of human use of water is toward agriculture. Out of that 70 percent used for agriculture, a full 70 percent of that was to grow food for animals, particularly cattle in terms of biomass. When you think of it, 70 percent of all the grain crops and all the corn was going to feed pigs and cows. So a full 50 percent of human use of water is to grow food for the animals we eat.

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Where are we headed in the future?

Well, I think that there are some positive signs that are appearing. I’m pretty optimistic that if we put our minds to it and our technical prowess and agree to agree it’s an important thing to tackle head-on, even with some pain to our economies, for the sake of doing something now versus suffering the full-on consequences down the road, some mediation to solve this problem would go a long way into not tipping us over to a horrific situation. I’m optimistic that the tools are there, that we have the ways and ideas of how to do it are there. Where I’m pessimistic is it seems democracies have kind of ground to a halt. Good decisions of long-term health of nations is being constantly thrown under the bus for short-term political or financial gains. Everything has gone to a four year cycle and a quarterly cycle in business. If that’s all you’re paying attention to, who’s looking out ahead of that into 20, 30 years out, I just don’t know how the political system or corporate system can be brought in line.

Can you talk about how governments are facing this?

Our government [Canada] is very pro massive development and go as fast as you can and exploit as much as you can. It's a revenue generator for the government. 

What's the solution?

The sooner we get rid of the geopolitical boundaries. We are a species of seven-something billion. It’s a finite planet. We’ve gone way past the interest of what nature can provide, and now we’re chewing down into the capital, and how much more can we chew into the capital without getting a bad reaction? Once it starts to tip and once you get the cascading effects, then you can cease and desist, but it’s too late because nature is doing its own thing. We’re in a place maybe for the next decade or two where we might be able to mitigate against the worst of what might be coming.