Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking #4, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000. Chromogenic color print, 48 x 60 inches. © Edward Burtynsky. Grinnell College Art Collection.

Edward Burtynsky,Shipbuilding #4, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000


The artist became interested in shipbreaking in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when it was announced that the insurance industry would mandate a global upgrade to double-hulled oil tankers, replacing the single-hulled vessels of the type that had just disastrously soiled Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Where do old oil tankers go to die?

He discovered the answer was the beaches of South Asia—India and Bangladesh in particular. He was barred from access to the yards of India's Gujarat state. (The shipbreaking industry is notoriously insular, corrupt, and in violation of international conventions barring the transfer of toxic materials from industrialized to developing nations.) Through back channels, however, he gained access to nearly all of 40 shipbreaking companies that operate along 12 miles of beach in Bangladesh.

The series of large-scale color photographs he shot there, preparatory studies for which can be seen in the portfolio on the adjacent wall, launched Burtynsky's international photography career.