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The deadline for submissions is Jan. 20, with a $5,000 prize for the winner

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Photographer Ed Burtynsky at Yonge-Dundas Square, in downtown Toronto in June 2022.Eduardo Lima/The Globe and Mail

For decades, Edward Burtynsky has created images that show how humans affect the natural world – turning the gritty, unglamorous details of mines, dams, shipyards and factories into haunting works that call on all of us to think about our impact on the planet.

A winner of multiple prestigious awards, the photographer has collaborated with other artists to document the impact of climate change through works including In the Wake of Progress. A multimedia project, that piece premiered at the Luminato Festival in June on advertising screens at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square. Mr. Burtynsky is also one of three artists behind The Anthropocene Project, a multimedia work that investigates the impacts of humans on earth.

In December, the Canadian Journalism Foundation launched the Edward Burtynsky Award for Climate Photojournalism. The competition is open to Canadian professionals employed by, or freelancing for, domestic news outlets. The deadline for submissions is Jan. 20, 2023, with a $5,000 prize for the winner.

Mr. Burtynsky, who is chairing the jury for the new award, spoke to The Globe and Mail about the competition and current projects.

Why did you think this award was an important thing to support right now?

I was at the CJF awards ceremony and I saw all the work that was being done and celebrated in photojournalism. And I immediately recognized the fact that journalists are being encouraged to go out and cover all kinds of things – whether those are social-justice issues, wars or something else.

But where I’ve positioned my art and my thinking, for 40 years now, has been the overriding existential crisis. I always brought it down to two. The worst would be all-out nuclear war. Number two is severe climate change. If the climate spirals out of control, and a rapid succession of things happen, we’re putting all living things on the planet at high risk.

The planet does go through cycles, but at this particular juncture, we are the agents of that cycle. We are in the management role of the planet, as a top predatory species. There is still there’s still something we can do about it. It’s up to all of us to do something about it.

And I realized that whenever I’m showing my work, or representing the films I’ve been involved in – you see what’s happening through imagery. It’s kind of a wake-up call. And photography has that capacity – it can be a fantastic medium to convey the stories of what’s happening.

You’ve spoken about being the son of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, you’ve raised money for humanitarian relief for Ukraine and you dedicated a recent award to Ukrainian artists, especially photographers documenting the war, including Maxim Dondyuk. Are you still working with photographers there?

I’m still working with them. I usually get in touch least once a month, but sometimes he’s out of contact or out of range. Because the cellular systems are being constantly tested with the way that Russia is conducting the war – by taking out infrastructure, from hydro to electricity to Internet to everything. They’re going after civilian infrastructure. But yeah, I am still working with them.

I felt like if I was there, and I had to change my practice and turned my lens to the war, I would probably be in the zone that he’s found of interpreting what’s happening.

You’ve also spoken of wanting people to have a visceral reaction to your work. What are you hoping for, in terms of impact?

Well, it’s not unusual for people to come to me after a lecture and say, “I was on this career path of studying something,” and now they’re in environmental studies or working on alternative energies or something like that. So to me, that’s a really profound kind of change. It helps reinforce the choir, so to speak. You know, I love science, and all that, but who’s reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report?

Most people won’t sit down and read the outcome of that report. But people will experience a film. People will go to an exhibition, people will look at images in a magazine or online. You need to be where people are getting their information if you’re going to communicate something. Going back to this award – photography has that ability to touch people.

We use it as short form for almost everything. If I like a recipe, I take a picture of it. If I like a restaurant, I’ll take a picture of it. Photography has become this shorthand for so much in our lives today. But at the same time, I think we’re very sophisticated consumers of images now. So when I was sitting in that audience, I realized that there isn’t anything for the art of journalists who are covering that beat to say, “Look, images are also a really important part of the storytelling.”

Your images are beautiful, but also distressing. In your work, is there anything that gives you hope?

Well, there’s always hope until there isn’t. One of the things that gives me hope is the fact that I’ve been able to go to and witness incredible biodiversity. It still exists. We haven’t shredded it all.

Questions and answers are edited for length and clarity.

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