The Proust Questionnaire: Edward Burtynsky

The Proust Questionnaire started as a Late Victorian parlour game, aimed at revealing key aspects of a person’s character. While still in his teens, author Marcel Proust answered a similar series of questions with such enthusiasm that, when the manuscript containing his original answers was discovered in 1924, his name became permanently associated with this type of informal interview.



Edward Burtynsky. Photo credit: © Birgit Kleber 2012


Internationally renowned for his large-scale photographs that capture the human impact on the global environment, Edward Burtynsky has been investigating human-altered landscapes in his artistic practice for 35 years. By recording the interaction between humanity and nature, his hauntingly beautiful images capture the disturbing result of industrial activity and its effect on the natural landscape. Taking photographs since the age of eleven, Burtynsky has been the recipient of many awards and accolades, such as the TED Prize, the Outreach award at the Rencontres d'Arles and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, as well as eight honorary doctorate degrees.

Burtynsky‘s work can be found in the collections of more than 60 museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada. This fall his most recent photographic series will be featured in the Gallery’s exhibition Anthropocene as part of his latest project with award-winning filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. Burtynsky’s photographs, taken in twenty countries and every continent except Antarctica, reveal the impact of technology, industrial infrastructures and other anthropic activity on our planet. In these images, the photographer continues to show today’s world in compelling detail while encouraging the viewer to delve into the deeper meaning of these fierce transformations imposed by humankind.


Your earliest memory of art:

Trying to make oil paintings of landscapes alongside my father when I was seven.

When you knew this would become your vocation:

When I was twenty taking a night school course at Niagara College on Photography.

Your greatest influence:

The first photographer I fell in love with was Edward Weston because of his ability to create the extraordinary out of the seemingly ordinary.

Occupation you would have chosen (other than art):

Mechanical Engineering

Favourite pastime (other than art):


Favourite artist:

Currently, Anselm Kiefer and Paul Klee.

Favourite food and drink:

My 94-year-old mother’s pierogies.

Favourite weather or season:

The fall in Canada

Favourite expression, catchphrase, proverb or word:

“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. You’ve got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight,” Bruce Cockburn

Pet peeve:


Best quality:


Worst flaw:

Working too much

Ideal place to live:


One wish:

That everyone in the next generation is fortunate enough to have the same level of opportunities that I have had.

Aspirations before you die:

To be a pioneer in advancing “Photography 3.0”, or photography in the third dimension.

To me art is (in five words or less): 

“A search for meaning and truth” and, as Gerhard Richter once said “the highest form of hope”.


Anthropocene, a double exhibition collaboration between the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and co-produced with the MAST Foundation in Bologna, is on view from 28 September 2018 to 24 February 2019. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

About the Author