x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The dark side of black gold

Edward Burtynsky's breathtaking photographs of oil tankers being broken up in Bangladesh should give us all pause for thought.

The photographer Edward Burtynsky is obsessed with oil. For years, he has recorded its extraction, use and impact on our planet, travelling to fields in Azerbaijan, taking shots of cars on the Nanpu Bridge Interchange in Shanghai, or visiting tyre mountains in California.

The work was collected in a fabulous coffee-table book in 2009 but, such is the enduring power of these images, that they continue to be shown in exhibitions around the world: one has just opened in London and another starts next month in Reno, Nevada. There's also a new Burtynsky: Oil app, a flick book of work that seeks to understand our reliance on the most important of natural resources.

"Everything we consume comes from nature in some way," he says. "And it's not only where it comes from that interests me, but how it is used and where it goes." This is why Burtynsky ended up in Bangladesh for some of his most famous images, of decommissioned oil tankers. Here, he talks The National through three favourite shots from the Shipbreaking series.

Shipbreaking #11

"Although these great vistas of broken ships are incredibly dramatic, I wanted to try and capture some of the humanity of Chittagong, too.

"There were 25,000 men here doing back-breaking, dangerous tasks. I wasn't first to point this out, but first world ships were going to the developing world to be taken apart in an environment that would never be allowed in the first world.

"These images I think allowed people to look at this industry and think about the relationship between us and the people breaking these ships. We are all implicated in that world - I was certain that when I was photographing these tankers, some of the oil they had transported had found its way into the car that I had driven, or the plane I had flown in."

Shipbreaking #13

"Chittagong was a strange, surreal, almost incomprehensible place. It felt like a post-apocalyptic setting.

"The smoke blowing in from the shipbreaking work taking place off-shot, combined with the natural haze of the equator at sunset and the lack of a horizon line, meant it became this mysterious, ethereal space. I like it when images have the capacity to transcend and enter the imagination as these epic, mythic places where these events are taking place. If I'm capturing the active side of an industry, I'll typically also focus on where the waste of that industry is gathered, too. To me, this landscape felt like contemporary ruins, a part of our society that we've used and turned our backs on."

Shipbreaking #23

"In this shot, you're looking at an inside wall of a huge tank on a ship which would contain the oil.

"So to have a solitary man standing against it seemed incredibly powerful. He became, for me, an interesting representative of the workforce; you could see he was doing a hellish job, but he'd retained a kind of dignity.

"He was standing proud and presenting himself to the camera in a way that suggested to me that he wanted to be acknowledged for the work that he was doing - even though he was so poor he didn't have any shoes. I didn't ask him to stand in a deliberate way, and I certainly don't like to editorialise - I'm not telling people what's good or bad. I really just want images such as this to prompt people to grapple with the complexity of the world we live in."

Burtynsky: Oil is at The Photographers' Gallery, London until July 1, and the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, from Saturday to September 23. The app is now available to download from iTunes