Environmental “beautification”

The start of the Final Major Project module has made me realise what I’m truly trying to achieve with my work.

And it isn’t necessarily what I thought it was. I have been sure since the start of this MA that I didn’t want realism to be the content of the images I make, even though the topic I have finally chosen to represent may seem to some to be the type of subject that calls for a more ‘journalistic’ interpretation.

In the past few days I have begun to crystalise my desire to provoke an understanding of the human impact on the earth, and in my Harena Now work, its impact on people and place through dubious sand mining-related issues in particular. But not through graphic depictions of the detrimental effects the demand for sand can and is having but through images that initially draw people to them through their aesthetic quality.

And once drawn to these images, a fuller story can unfold.

This week Edward Burtynsky (someone whose work I have highlighted quite frequently) was awarded the Photo London Master of Photography. This will be supported by an exhibition of new new and rarely-seen work, with an element of augmented reality thrown in for good measure.

Now I’m a fan of Burtynsky’s work, for its mammoth scale and representation of human impact, but on Twitter today, Rob Hudson (co-founder of the Inside the Outside Collective) said of Burtynsky’s work that he had a “few problems with Edward Burtynsky’s beautification of environmental degradation for sale to wealth oligarchs who are responsible for said environmental degradation”.

An interesting point. But for me, regardless of the comment about who may or may not be buying Burtynsky’s work, I was struck by the word “beautification”.

In this instance, I agree that Burtynsky’s work does take terrible environmental consequences of human impact and turn them into images that can be described as beautiful – but does this lessen their power to shock or provoke change? Are they simply too beautiful to do so?

With my work, I don’t wish to beautify an existing scene, but rather create images using the object of my investigation, sand, to create ethereal and otherworldly images, which will lure and beguile before sharing their more appalling reason for being.

By taking this approach, I hope to challenge notions of how as viewers we expect to, or are expected to, react to images that challenge our own species tendency to rule the natural world.

Do we need to see things in graphic detail or can we be moved by beauty?

As to who buys our work, I think that is for another day.