When I was five, I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. It changed the way I look at water; I recall being fascinated by the sheer magnitude and power of it. How it created my world and covered so much of it. When I was thirty-five, I toured Africa for the first time. It changed the way I look at water. How without it I would not be alive. I spent over twenty-five years teaching about it at university and researching it and protecting it as a scientist and an environmental consultant. The mark that water has left on me has been great.
Water is all around us. It’s in the air we breathe. It covers 70 percent of the Earth. We are made of mostly water. Here, in North America where water is generally plentiful, many of us tend to take it for granted. Not renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. In fact, he’s made it part of his life’s work.
A while ago I attended the Toronto International Film Festival to watch a feature documentary on water by Burtynsky and multiple-award winning filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier. It was called Watermark. It changed the way I look at water.
Shot in 5K ultra high-definition video, Watermark soars with truly breathtaking aerial perspectives, wide expanses and spectacular light. From its powerful opening scene of jetting spillway water from the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River, China, to the turbulent waters of the pristine rugged Stikine River valley of northern BC in the fall, Watermark features water in all its humble glory: as a powerful terraforming element, and “magnificent force of nature that we all too often take for granted—until it’s gone.”
Burtynsky brought his eye for pattern, texture and light into this visually stunning movie that spans ten countries and twenty stories. Scenes flow from massive floating abalone farms off China’s Fujian coast to the construction site of the biggest arch dam in the world—the Xiluodu, six times the size of the Hoover. Images and scenes weave an evocative story. There is the barren desert delta where the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean … The Panna Meena Stepwell of Rajasthan, India … The polluting leather tanneries of Dhaka … The U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach … the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, where thirty million people gather for a sacred bath in the Ganges … Scientists drill ice cores two kilometers deep into the Greenland Ice Sheet … a lone water guardian walks the rice terraces of the Western Yunnan Province in China.
Exploring pattern, filigree, light and relief, Watermark juxtaposes contrasting imagery—to tell an epic story. Take for instance, the two scenes in China, one of Xiluodu, the largest arch dam in the world, and the other China’s traditional rice patties in the Western Yunnan Province of China. Both represent a new and an ancient perspective of the same phenomenon: how to divert and use water.
“Water has a unique capacity to express scale and detail simultaneously,” says filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal. “It can be a meandering, pastoral brook and the trickle from the edge of an ice sheet, or it can be a monumental force, like Niagara Falls and the Pacific Ocean.” Watermark is a visual essay that takes the aerial grandness of a powerful scene and roots it in the intimacy of the particular. This is a Burtynsky moniker: to show personal detail in the midst of epic grandness; to tease out story from the chaos.
Many of the shots were taken from unique angles and often from above, demonstrating context and providing a global link that all of humanity can understand and resonate with. The documentary is more contemplation and presentation, less rhetoric or polemic. Yet, lingering in the shoals and quiet pools is a message. There’s a reason why Burtynsky tells this story (both as movie and book). He’s Canadian. “In Canada we are never far from places where one can see how the land looks without our presence. Around the globe, this has become a rare perspective,” says Burtynsky.
In his article in the October 2013 issue of The Walrus, Burtynsky explains why he started taking pictures of the earth’s water, culminating in his book Burtynsky—Water and the film Watermark: “The world’s population was 2.8 billion when I was born. Not quite six decades later, 7.2 billion humans inhabit the planet. This fact runs through almost all my photographs, but it became especially relevant when I started to think about taking pictures of the earth’s water.”
“My photographs reflect the impact of humanity, not its absence. They are pictures of our footprint, and the diminishment of nature that results. They are distressed landscapes: images of land, and now of water, that we have altered, or diverted, or transformed, or used in this unprecedented period of population growth, agricultural expansion, and industrialization. Documenting the point of impact between humankind and its evolving environment has turned out to be a life’s work.”
“Canada borders the Great Lakes, which contain 21 percent of the world’s fresh surface water,” writes Burtynsky. “The other one to three million lakes in this country (depending on your definition of “lake”) hold even more.” He contends that, “[Canada is] not an oil country. We are a water country. The implications and the responsibilities are enormous…We are custodians of over one-fifth of a resource that is utilitarian in the broadest and most necessary sense: water enables everything to live. Without it, there is wasteland—end of story.”
Watermark is a visual essay on this planet’s most valuable and mysterious component. It is a quiet exhortation to rethink our perspectives on an element that is both “common” and prized, an element that, if it were not here, would mark the violent end of all life.