Oil epiphany

Edward Burtynsky's photographic record of our addiction to fossil fuels.

"If there's one thing I want people to know as they walk away it's that we can't keep living like this." Edward Burtynsky

Walking around the recently refurbished Soho-based Photographer's Gallery primary exhibit – Burtynsky: Oil - I was reminded of a remark I once made in a secondary school science class. Discussing the pros and cons of fossil fuels the teacher asked us what we thought on the subject. Someone answered that the factories that produce fossil fuels blight the landscape. The class nodded in agreement. I can, however, remember my 12-year old self disagreeing with this sentiment. I put my hand up to offer a response and said that on the contrary I thought the Port Talbot steelworks with their refinery flames lighting up the evening sky - local to my home at the time - were incredibly beautiful at night. Everybody, the teacher included, laughed but I hadn't intended it as a joke.

This memory popped into my head as I walked around Oil because, at the simplest level, these pictures of oil refineries, scrap yards, helicopter graveyards, oil spills and colourful images of car-filled raceways are, and my words understate the case, absolutely visually captivating and breathtaking. They are pictures that deserve to be seen up close and in person.

There is a level of ambiguity in Oil that I was however unprepared for. Hearing that the exhibition was about the world's obsession with oil or, as Burtynsky says in a video at the exhibition, about the fact "nothing is not touched by oil" I expected pictures that would be didactic and take us close to the terrible consequences of this obsession. But this is no Walker Evans. It's almost as if God were in control of the camera we see things from so detached and distant a view.

For example, one would expect a dump of thousands of deflated tyres to be a grim sight but through Burtynsky's lens the dirt, mess and waste is transformed into something akin to a true piece of art. The camera poetically hides from us the reality of our oil use. So too, another called Densified Oil Filters in Canada, emanates the style of a Jackson Pollock. What would taken individually be just a rusty piece of metal en masse forms something ordered, patterned and meaningful as hundreds of engines compose an image of machinery patterned like a mosaic and flecked with colour. Chaos revealed as order. 

The exhibit, on the pristine new fourth and fifth floors of the gallery, is a complementary home for such well crafted and, on large canvases, visually detailed pictures. The exhibit is split into three sections: extraction and refinement, transportation and motor culture and the end of oil. Finding the extraction and refinement images located on the fourth floor, under the images of motor vehicles and transport on the fifth neatly reflects the fact that extraction is the foundation upon which oil use depends. It is a thoughtful touch by the exhibit's arranger.

But as I walk between floors it is questions about the ambiguity of this piece that keep pressing me. Most illustrative of this ambiguity are several aerial shots of the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 - a horrific and ecological disaster of gigantic proportions. Burtynsky's images of the disaster are so distant that the sense of disaster is almost lost. One of the shots in particular - two tankers spraying water onto the burning oil rig - shows a rainbow forming out of the water spray of the rescue boats. It shows beauty in a scene surely where there is anything but.

"I wanted to show what oil is and how we engaged with it."

Listening to Burtynsky on a video audio supplement at the gallery he discusses what may be a reason for this ambiguity. As the photographer says, his early work was about exploring the relationship humans have between themselves and the environment and the incredible achievements we have made as a race. It was only as his career progressed, he adds, that he had what he calls his "oil epiphany" and realised that "the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over 20 years were only made possible by the discovery of oil". Burtynsky both admires and fears human achievement.

The global relationships that increasingly will come to dominate international politics in the twenty-first century are in Oil implicitly acknowledged. America, oil thirsty, the consumer and countries such as Baku, Canada and Bangladesh,- dependent on profits from oil and only too happy to supply. What America does with that oil is also depicted and Burtynsky's camera tells a story of hedonism and waste. Images of multiple parked Harley Davidson's, sprawling highways and drag racing show an America blissfully unaware of its "end of oil". Next to these images I notice a solitary image of oil consumption in China. Hanging innocuously amongst others in the gallery, nevertheless it points to the future.

Burtynsky: Oil runs until 1 July 2012 at Soho’s Photographer’s Gallery (www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk)

www.edwardburtynsky.com

Sean Gittins is a performer, broadcaster and producer of the Arts Council England funded project Til Debt Do Us Part. You can follow him at http://www.seangittins.co.uk/Home.html and @sean_gittins.

Albert Oil Sands #2, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada 2007 by Edward Burtynsky
ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle