Edward Burtynsky

Book Review Edward Burtynsky: African Studies

© Edward Burtynsky

“Our planetary system is affected by a magnitude of force as powerful as any naturally occurring global catastrophe, but one caused solely by a single species: us.”- Edward Burtynsky

─── by Josh Bright, September 20, 2023
  • ‘African Studies’, the recent, Steidl-published book by internationally acclaimed, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, is a captivating and thought-provoking portrait of Africa’s rapidly evolving landscape.

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Sand dunes, Namib Desert, Africa
    Sand Dunes #1, Sossusvlei, Namib Desert, Namibia, 2018

    For over four decades, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has been photographing landscapes across the globe, capturing striking, large-scale imagery that tells a story of a planet reshaped by human ambition.

    In his latest project, he spent seven years photographing the nations that make up Sub-Saharan Africa, documenting the terraforming, extraction, urbanization, and deforestation that is rapidly transforming the region.

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Salt ponds, Senegal, Africa
    Salt Ponds #2b, Near Fatick, Senegal, 2019

    Burtynsky’s ability to render landscapes into abstract masterpieces is on display in the book. Predominantly comprised of his trademark, wide aerial shots captured from helicopters and drones, the 167 images showcase breathtaking natural vistas, bustling cityscapes, expansive oil fields, vast salt flats, and mineral mines. 

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Mountains, Namibia, Africa
    Tsaus Mountains #3, Sperrgebiet, Namibia, 2018

    Beautifully presented in large scale by Steidl, each photograph commands attention, enabling readers to appreciate the scale, grandeur and complex details within.

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Salt Works in Namibia
    Swakopmund Salt Works #1, Swakopmund, Namibia, 2018
    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Camel Caravan in Ethiopia
    Camel Caravan #1, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia, 2018

    It is a body of work that exemplifies Burtynsky exceptional photographic skill, his ability to strike a balance between honesty and artistry, capturing breathtaking images that possess a captivating quality akin to fine art, yet simultaneously, eloquently convey the vast scale and intricate nature of the devastation faced by Africa’s landscapes.

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Green lake in the Rift Valley, Kenya, 2017
    Lake Logipi #1, Rift Valley, Kenya, 2017

    Accompanying the images
    are insightful essays contributed by Burtynsky himself, as well as other experts. These not only provide context for the photographs, but also offer a deeper understanding of the environmental, social, and economic impact of Africa’s transformation.

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Flamingos in Lake Bogoria, Kenya
    Flamingos #1, Lake Bogoria, Kenya, 2017
    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Sishen Iron Ore Mine, Kathu, South Africa
    Sishen Iron Ore Mine #5, Tailings, Kathu, South Africa, 2018

    The inspiration for this project can be traced back to Burtynsky’s work in China nearly two decades ago, where he witnessed the rapid industrial expansion and the shifting global landscape and recognized the potential for a similar pattern to emerge in Africa.

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Rail & Highway Crossing, Mojo, Ethiopia
    Rail & Highway Crossing #1, Mojo, Ethiopia, 2018

    Now, two decades on, the pace of globalization has accelerated, and China’s influence on the continent is profound. The book’s final section delves into this influence, capturing the infrastructure and mega-factories established by Chinese companies, offering a captivating glimpse into the economic relationship between China and Africa, and the impact of this collaboration on the continent.

    Aerial landscape photography by Edward Burtynsky. Colorful Salt pans in Walvis Bay, Namibia
    Salt Pans #32, Walvis Bay, Namibia, 2018

    ‘African Studies’ is more than a collection of photographs; it is a powerful documentary in its own right. The images masterfully convey both beauty and devastation, inviting readers to contemplate the urgent need to address planetary ruin and its far-reaching consequences. It further cements Burtynsky’s place as one of the most important photographers of our time, demonstrating his skill, vision, and profound commitment to highlighting the challenges faced by humanity in creating a sustainable future.


    All images © Edward Burtynsky

    African Studies is published by Steidl