In ‘African Studies,’ Edward Burtynsky Photographs the Human Imprint on Sub-Saharan Landscapes

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“Gold Tailings #1, Doornkop Gold Mine, Johannesburg, South Africa” (2018). All images © Edward Burtynsky, shared with permission

Renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky approaches his latest project with curiosity about the future of human impact and globalization. From the diamond mines of South Africa to the richly textured landscape of Namibia’s Tsaus Mountains, African Studies spotlights the sub-Saharan region and its reserves of metals, salt, precious gemstones, and other ores. “I am surveying two very distinct aspects of the landscape,” he says in a statement, “that of the earth as something intact, undisturbed yet implicitly vulnerable… and that of the earth as opened up by the systematic extraction of resources.”

Taken over seven years in ten nations—these include Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, and Tanzania—the aerial photos, which are compiled in a forthcoming book published by Steidl, present a dichotomy between a region irrevocably altered by humanity and one of immense possibility. Burtynsky’s interest in the continent began in the early Aughts when working on a series about China, which he explains:

For that project, and while researching several topics including the Three Gorges Dam, urban renewal, and recycling, I learned how the new Chinese factories were being created. At the time, heavy machinery was literally being unbolted from concrete floors in Europe and North America, then shipped and refastened to the floors of gigantic facilities in China. This represented a paradigm shift of industry, and it seemed obvious that China was rapidly becoming a leading manufacturer for the world. I realized even then that the African continent was poised to become the next, perhaps even the last, territory for major industrial expansion.

Particularly since 2013 when it launched its Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested billions of dollars in expanding its global presence, with many African nations as targets. This growth, along with international competition for access and power on the continent, has widespread economic, environmental, and governmental impacts, which Burtynsky explores through the series.


“Oil Bunkering #9, Niger Delta, Nigeria” (2016)

Photographed via helicopter, plane, or drone, his images juxtapose the natural beauty of the landscape with the unnerving scars of human impact. Long tailing ponds, or waste sites from mining with the potential to contaminate the area with toxic chemicals, appear frequently in the project, while photos like that of the Dandora Landfill center on the direct effects of consumerism on local people. The largest waste repository in Kenya, the dump site attracts locals who scavenge recyclable plastic to sell, despite the rampant threat of cancer and infertility.

While much of African Studies is shot outdoors, Burtynsky heads inside for part of the project, documenting the interiors of manufacturing plants. “I hope to continue raising awareness about the cost of growing our civilization without the necessary consideration for sustainable industrial practices and the dire need for implementing globally organized governmental initiatives and binding international legislations in order to protect present and future generations from what stands to be forever lost,” he says.

African Studies is currently available for pre-order on Bookshop. Photos from the series are also on view at two New York spaces: Sundaram Tagore through April 1 and Howard Greenberg Gallery through April 22.


“Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya” (2016)

“Tsaus Mountains #1, Sperrgebiet, Namibia” (2018)

“Tailings Pond #2, Wesselton Diamond Mine Kimberley, Northern Cape South Africa” (2018)

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