Whether driving alone into burning oil fields or trekking to remote uranium tailings sites, photographers Sebastião Salgado and Edward Burtynsky have built international careers from staking out positions on the front lines of industrial globalization. They have made a staggering documentary record of what the accelerating spiral from ore to finished goods to scrap is doing to populations and environments across the globe. Salgado, a former economist who fled political repression in his native Brazil in 1969, has focused on the toil and migrations that have driven and been driven by integrated global economies – and on places and populations that have stayed relatively untouched. Ontario-born Burtynsky has concentrated on the patterns and scars inflicted on landscapes and cities by industrial processes. Both work in thematic series that sprawl across continents, take years to complete and tour the globe in high-profile exhibitions, including Salgado's Genesis (opening Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum) and Burtynsky's Oil (opening May 31 at Ottawa's Canadian Museum of Nature).
During an exclusive encounter in Toronto, the two master photographers talked about the rigours of getting into places that most of us will never see, the effect of their New World backgrounds on their work and their passionate pursuit of the image that crystallizes a thematic concept.
Burtynsky:Sebastião has spent a lot of time looking at the human dimension. I'm once removed, I'm looking at the effect of humans on the landscape. Humans rarely end up being the primary subject in my photography. It's more to do with how we as a species are imposing systems onto the landscape, as the human enterprise expands to seven billion. Our expansion has a direct effect on nature and the landscape, and on the wilderness. That's always been the core of my thinking.
Salgado:When I first saw Ed's pictures, I saw there's a lot in common, though the concept is completely different. We were both born in huge countries with lots of space. It's quite different from the position of the European photographer. I was born on a big farm in the interior of Brazil. It took us about 45 days on horseback to bring the cattle to the slaughterhouse, and about 25 days to travel back home. At that time, more than 92 per cent of Brazilians were living on farms, but today, 92 per cent live in towns. In these 55 years, we have had a huge change in the Brazilian model of life.
The series I did before were human, social projects. Workers was about the end of the first industrial revolution, with the arrival of intelligent machines and robots in assembly lines. With Lelia, my wife, we created a project to do a kind of archeology of the industrial era. In Genesis, I photographed other things, including animals and landscapes.
Burtynsky:A lot of the heavy lifting is deciding what your concept is, getting your ideas in order and going from a general idea to a specific image. For me, that's always been kind of a mysterious process, partly intuitive, partly from what you see and experience. When you develop a concept that you want to follow, you move away from the randomness of taking photographs to the idea of making photographs. It's very personal – the subject, the colour, the ideas, how you're organizing the frame, what you're choosing to speak about. The question is always: How do I intersect with something in my time, that has a universality to it, that goes beyond my internalized ideas and can speak into a greater forum?
Sebastião saw the end of the industrial revolution and the beginning of the information age, and wanted to make a tribute to the worker who brought humanity to that moment. In the early eighties, I got the idea of looking at mining, and went to areas where mining was happening, and started a process of discovery with my camera. I would try a bunch of things, look at what came out of it, refine it and keep going back till I felt I had saturated that idea.
Salgado:You try to prepare yourself, and you may have a good notion of where you are going, but you don't know exactly what you will find. There is the moment of surprise when you discover things as they really are in that place. For Genesis, I was working in the north of Ethiopia. I started in Lalibela, and walked 850 kilometres through the mountains, on paths that our species has been travelling over for 5,000 years. I lived at first with tribes, the majority of whom had not seen anyone from our Western society. No one had taken pictures of what we saw, of incredible erosions in the canyon of the Takezé River, that brings its waters to the Blue Nile, which flows into the Nile River that created all the fertile lands in Egypt, that is the basis of our modern history. That's the side of photography that brings you to a fresh world.
Burtynsky:The actual getting into places is a bit of an art, especially when they don't want you there. You have to be convincing that the work is of a high quality and related to ideas that they can see value in. Some mining companies gave me full carte blanche and other places felt threatened and said no.
The places in China I never managed to get into were factories that were making things for the U.S. market. I wanted to get rows and rows of Chinese workers making Spider-Man figures. But any factory that had contracts with America had a no-photography stipulation, for fear of a camera maybe picking up unsafe practices. I was restricted to factories making things for the Chinese market. I had a much easier time getting into those places than into factories in North America, particularly after 9/11.
There is one place where Sebastião's path and mine crossed, in the shipbreaking yards at Chittagong in Bangladesh, where they recycle the largest objects we've ever made as a species. People there were telling me, "There was another photographer here, 11 years ago." But I was coming at it from a totally different direction, looking at things as they come to the end of their life, accumulate somewhere in the landscape and get processed to be further engaged in other things. I was following material, versus following the worker.
Salgado:I arrived in Chittagong because the centre line of my Workers project was ship construction and ship death. In reality, a ship is born in iron-ore mines and coal mines and steel plants, where they produce the flat steel that goes to a shipyard. I photographed in all those places, everything that was produced by workers to build a ship. When a ship has no more reason to be, they send it to Bangladesh and workers cut it apart, slice by slice. They don't have iron ore or steel plants in Bangladesh, so every metal they use comes from ships.
I had problems sometimes getting permission to photograph workers, but the problems were not in countries we think of as very controlling. When I went to the Soviet Union to shoot in the iron-ore mines, people said I would never get authorization. But I had fewer problems in Russia and China than I did in Venezuela with the oil industry. They thought my work was too social, too close to the worker, and not enough to the glory of their industry. I convinced them, but the day I started at Maracaibo was the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Because of that attack on the Kuwaiti oil fields, the Americans felt they had to protect the security of oil wells in Venezuela, and they pushed out everyone who was not part of the industry.
Burtynsky:But then you went to Kuwait!
Salgado:I went to Kuwait, absolutely. When the troops of Saddam Hussein came out, I went immediately to Saudi Arabia, hired a four-wheel-drive car and drove through the desert to Kuwait. And at this moment it was not necessary to get authorization, because all the border controls were destroyed. The country was completely empty of authority. All the oil wells were burning, and there were only these guys from Canada and the U.S., trying to stop the fires, to cap the oil wells. I worked there for one month, completely alone, driving around with a compass. It was one of the most incredible episodes of my life. I had the impression I was photographing in a huge theatre, because sometimes for two or three days you would have no light. If you had no wind, all the heavy smoking from these burning oil wells would create a kind of filter against the light. It would be dark for 24 hours straight. But sometimes you would see a small opening on the horizon, and that was so incredible.
For Genesis, I worked with a tribe in Brazil that had not been contacted before, and with another that was contacted just 10 or 15 years ago. They are living in a very dangerous moment, because we are slowly destroying the rain forest where they live. I believe that is the most important point we must put into discussion, how to protect this area. Not just because they are the most important points for the water system, and for the sequestration of carbon, but because in these places we can find ourselves as we were 10,000 or 50,000 years ago.
I do a lot with a bridge organization called Survive International, that works with populations that are in danger. There is another tribe in Brazil called Zo'é, who started to have a lot of mining research around their land. It was the time when Lula was the Brazilian president, and we know him quite well. He signed a law making the land a national reserve that is protected.
The bushmen in Botswana were living their lives as they did 50,000 years ago, till it was discovered that there were a lot of diamonds inside their land. The government pushed them out, put them in a kind of refugee camp and completely destroyed their way of life. We worked with a small group of bushmen who live in the Kalahari desert, in the traditional way. And some of those pictures are here in Genesis; they are part of the story.
To do these kinds of stories, you must have a big identification with them, an ideological and ethical identification. To do one story for five, six, eight years, you must be very happy with it. It becomes a big privilege and a pleasure, and you don't see the years go.
In the end, your pictures become your life.
Sebastião Salgado's Genesis opens at the Royal Ontario Museum on Saturday and continues until Sept. 2. An exhibition of images from Genesis, Workers and his Migrations series continues at Toronto's Nicholas Metivier Gallery through May 25. Both shows are part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, which runs through May 31.Ed Burtynsky's exhibition Oil opens at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa on May 31 and continues until Sept. 2.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.