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Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky returns to Australia

January 16, 2023

Edward Burtynsky standing in front of a large television with a picture of a room in flames

One of the best-known photographers in the world, Canadian Edward Burtynsky, has delved into his back catalogue to produce In The Wake of Progress, which played in Sydney as an ‘out of season’ collaboration with Sydney Festival.

The free, outdoor and immersive experience, In The Wake of Progress – which played at Taylor Square in Sydney’s inner suburb of Darlinghurst (supported by the Consulate General of Canada) – featured decades’ worth of photographs produced alongside a masterful soundtrack. The narrative took the viewer across continents and through different environments, with the goal of showing the audience the true human impact on the planet.

“There’s a whole world that we just never pay attention to that sits thrum in the background, creating all this stuff,” Burtynsky told Canada Down Under while he was in Sydney.

“All of this is part of who we are.”

When initially planned and commissioned for the 2020 Luminato Festival in Toronto, Burtynsky had eight months to produce the piece, which would play across 22 outdoor screens in the city’s Yonge-Dundas Square. The COVID-19 pandemic then put a halt to the display.

Given the additional time, Burtyknsy set about re-imagining and enhancing the piece.

“That 2 years allowed this to percolate, and when you get time – I couldn’t travel anywhere – it became a focused piece,” he said.

Edward Burtynsky standing in front of 3 large televisions each with pictures of filled parking lots

Pulling together an all-Canadian team – which included co-producer Bob Ezrin, original score by Phil Strong and vocals by Cree Métis artist iskwē.

“A success is that you never feel like you’re out of sync with it,” he said.

“What you’re seeing, what you’re hearing and what you’re feeling are all working in concert.”

Burtynsky set about compiling an arc of his work that would capture the imagination of people who weren’t necessarily expecting to have an artistic experience.

“That’s one of those great moments of public art, when someone who isn’t expecting to have an experience of art or culture is and all of a sudden they’re swept up into this moment,” he said.

“Did you come because you heard about it, or did you happen upon it – I love the happen upon it, because you were doing something else and now you’re in this experience, and you get carried away.”

The piece shows areas of the globe most people don’t usually get to see, whether it be in mines, sweatshops, factories or areas of deforestation. Burtynsky’s access is unparalleled.

“The winning formula is persistence; you just don’t give up,” he explained.

“Persistence and knowing what you want – language is really important when you’re dealing with you people you’re asking permission. It is a kind of social contract, in that I never betray those companies – and I usually don’t pick the worst actors either.”

And while many would feel In The Wake of Progress comes with a clear, somewhat dystopian message, Burtynsky implores that he is simply the messenger, not the judge.

“I like to think of my work as revelatory and not accusatory, and I want to open up this window into this world that is a necessary world that creates all the things that we need – all of this is part of who we are,” he said.

“This is business as usual; these are all companies that have permission from the governments to do what they’re doing.”

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