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Edward Burtynsky photographs the landscape of oil

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I started my journey 30 years ago. And I worked in mines. And I realized that this was a world unseen. And I wanted, through color and large format cameras and very large prints, to make a body of work that somehow became symbols of our use of the landscape, how we use the land. And to me this was a key component that somehow, through this medium of photography, which allows us to contemplate these landscapes, that I thought photography was perfectly suited to doing this type of work.

And after 17 years of photographing large industrial landscapes, it occurred to me that oil is underpinning the scale and speed. Because that is what has changed, is the speed at which we're taking all our resources. And so then I went out to develop a whole series on the landscape of oil. And what I want to do is to kind of map an arc that there is extraction, where we're taking it from the ground, refinement. And that's one chapter.

The other chapter that I wanted to look at was how we use it -- our cities, our cars, our motorcultures, where people gather around the vehicle as a celebration. And then the third one is this idea of the end of oil, this entropic end, where all of our parts of cars, our tires, oil filters, helicopters, planes -- where are the landscapes where all of that stuff ends up?

And to me, again, photography was a way in which I could explore and research the world, and find those places. And another idea that I had as well, that was brought forward by an ecologist -- he basically did a calculation where he took one liter of gas and said, well, how much carbon it would take, and how much organic material? It was 23 metric tons for one liter. So whenever I fill up my gas, I think of that liter, and how much carbon.

And I know that oil comes from the ocean and phytoplankton, but he did the calculations for our Earth and what it had to do to produce that amount of energy. From the photosynthetic growth, it would take 500 years of that growth to produce what we use, the 30 billion barrels we use per year.

And that also brought me to the fact that this poses such a risk to our society. Looking at 30 billion per year, we look at our two largest suppliers, Saudi Arabia and now Canada, with its dirty oil. And together they only form about 15 years of supply. The whole world, at 1.2 trillion estimated reserves, only gives us about 45 years. So, it's not a question of if, but a question of when peak oil will come upon us.

So, to me, using photography -- and I feel that all of us need to now begin to really take the task of using our talents, our ways of thinking, to begin to deal with what I think is probably one of the most challenging issues of our time, how to deal with our energy crisis.

And I would like to say that, on the other side of it, 30, 40 years from now, the children that I have, I can look at them and say, "We did everything we possibly, humanly could do, to begin to mitigate this, what I feel is one of the most important and critical moments in our time. Thank you. (Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 3 minutes and 19 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 388
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 11, 2009

In stunning large-format photographs, Edward Burtynsky follows the path of oil through modern society, from wellhead to pipeline to car engine -- and then beyond to the projected peak-oil endgame.

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