Manufactured Landscapes, the meditative documentary that records moments of Edward Burtynsky’s photographic journeys through China, opens with a lengthy and dragging shot of the Cankun Factory in Xiamen City. Viewers take in countless rows of anonymous workers as they assemble, twist, tweak, and test a number of products that will soon be shipped off to consumers around the world. “Manufacturing #10A and 10B” is the resulting still diptych shot by Burtynsky from an elevated walkway perpendicular to the film’s opening scan, revealing the factory’s seemingly infinite iteration of aisles as a single collection. Only two other anonymous figures on the right edge of “10B” have the same vantage point and assumed consciousness as Burtynsky and his camera.
Every human figure in the diptych is wearing a yellow shirt and black pants, save for perhaps three with khakis or a pair of denim jeans. Only two people seem as though they may be aware of the camera’s presence: one of the two figures on the right edge of “10B” who is gesturing towards the camera’s position, and a worker in the closest row facing the camera in the bottom right corner of “10A.” The rest remain unconscious of the camera and Burtynsky’s actions, just as the photo renders them unconscious of their existence as singular entities. They are like sunflowers on a farm, organized in predetermined and evenly displaced stations along raised green platforms that secure them into place, as if they are rooted into grass. Above them, the arching blue steel and windows, white with natural light, emulate their sun and sky, while fluorescent lights hang high above the workers as though they are sprinklers of calculated light, not water. Stacks of brown supply boxes line the edges of their aisles like bags of fertilizer set to promote further growth.
The required uniform restricts individuality and epitomizes its etymology, for all the workers are of one form. The workers’ respective distances from the lens remove any discernable countenances. They achieve and perform as a unit for a grander ideal, and it, the unit, has a voice, but they do not. From the camera’s standpoint, and thus the viewers’, they are beings with a singular agenda, a singular opinion, and a singular drive.
“Manufacturing #10A and 10B” evokes a host of questions and ideas, all more philosophical and existential than asking what the workers’ functions may be. In a Freudian context we may ask: What does the entire group think itself to be and what is its function? What is its identity? How does the camera or Burtynsky identify the group and its parts? From and Althussian perspective we ask about the workers’ roles in the group and the group’s role in the state and the state’s role in the world. To what systems do the factory workers belong, and to what ideologies do they subscribe? Even more so, what part do they play in the ideologies of others? Paul Cezanne’s quote, “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness” could have just as well been attributed to Burtynsky’s camera. After his camera spoke, it thought, and this photo is what it pondered up.
“The contrast between individual psychology and social or group psychology, which at a first glance may seem to be full of significance, loses a great deal of its sharpness when it is examined more closely.” It is for this reason that Edward Burtynsky examines the relationship that exists among groups and individuals at a distance. “Manufacturing #10A and 10B” is a look at both the micro and the macro; through Burtynsky’s lens, the audience can spot the individuals and wonder at the size of the group. The Cankun factory contains the group in its enormity, as well as its thoughts and actions. But it is not a container for the opinions or desires of individuals. Freud explains Le Bon’s conjectures, repeating that a group may obey impulses of any nature, but the impulses are so authoritative that individual wishes and beliefs are marginalized. The individual loses not only their individuality but also the notion of impossibility when working to fulfill a task as a part of and for the larger group. This is especially true when much of the group is invested in completing the same tasks and achieving the same goal.
The workers in Burtynsky’s photo express nothing. They make up a truly Freudian/Le Bonian “group” in that they have been stripped of individuality by wearing the exact same clothing, placed in specific increments, and working without entertaining thoughts of the self. Their functioning as a group makes the work seem truly mindless. Burtynsky examines the makeup of the group through his aesthetic choices. He shoots from above the production lines so that he can view them in their entirety and not as separate but connected. This would be like driving past the farm of sunflowers and seeing the rows properly planted but realizing that they are a part of one farm, one unit. Burtynsky’s camera is not positioned on the ground or near an individual. If it had been, viewers would be able to distinguish between each person; the viewers might be able to learn them. There is too much thought, too many opinions that are exuded through the face and they would be too known to the image’s audience. This would be stopping on the side of the road, kneeling and plucking a flower to examine its petals and being able to discern this flower from the others. It would be like knowing this flower’s texture. But the viewers must not know the flowers or workers as independent units, and Burtynsky achieves this end by photographing the factory as a landscape and not as a collection of individuals.
The camera’s perspective also emphasizes the repetition in the factory. Repetition is an important aspect of the image, even in the way that it is presented. The diptych almost tricks the viewer into thinking that “10A” and “10B” are actually the mirror image of one photo. The camera’s elevated position reinforces the patterns that may not have been so clear otherwise. The image is guided by sameness and order, and the viewers’ eyes are funneled to the back of the factory, which allows them to take in the structure’s entire landscape. The image is repetitive and the work is repetitive. The repetition of physical behavior serves to reinforce the individual’s place within the larger group as they continue to produce for the group, resulting in a constant state of diminished intellectual exercise. Le Bon’s belief is that merging an individual into a group reduces intellectual ability, but really it may be that the ability is not fully utilized when engaged in mindnumbing tasks or existing in a herd and without independent control.
There are, however, certain experiences that are unique to an individual existing within a herd that has little to do with diminished autonomy, and, in fact, has to do with a heightened awareness of the Self and one's experiences. On the ground level, the workers can only perceive what exists within a short distance. This is their world; themselves and their neighbors. With a limited perspective of the entire group and the group pulse, an individual may perceive the epicenter of the group system to be that which is in close proximity to themself. From the vantage point of within the group, the individual has not only an isolated perspective of the group itself but has a limited awareness of one's place and purpose within it. A singular sunflower in the field may only have the notion that the flowers surrounding it exist - but does it know how many acres of uniform field it stands amongst? This narcissism is confounded by the fact that, with the knowledge of only what is within arm’s reach, an individual may only know on what he/she has impact - their immediate right and left - and may not comprehend how little impression their existence has on the collective organism it exists amongst.
The result of this narcissistic existence is an obstructed consciousness - a consciousness of one's literal and figurative position in the greater space and system that is fundamentally limited and definitively so. This consciousness is limited by the simple fact that one is where one is within the system or group and can only define their existence within the group by acknowledging the presence of others around themselves. Each worker occupies his or her own space as defined by those taking positions around them. The resulting image of these narcissistic thoughts is Burtynsky’s photograph, but it possesses a consciousness that the workers do not.
From the camera's vantage point, the rows of workers can become more than person next to person, and can instead be seen as a factory. Burtynsky and his camera are consciously aware of a landscape that is not necessarily conscious of itself. Paul Cezanne would say that the landscape must think itself within the camera's lens to be more than just a series of workers, and rather to be a factory it must subject itself to the camera's pure consciousness that is neither obstructed or limited by involvement, narcissism based on proximity, nor reduced consciousness or intellectual thought due to repetitive group-think, uniformity of behavior or subjugation on the part of the pack ideologies.
It is not clear as to whether or not the group in the image has any leaders, but it appears as though the two figures on the right of “10B” are supervising the rest of the group, though not distinguished by anything other than their position. As supervisors or possible group leaders, they feed the group’s ideologies to those that make it up. This image captures not only the places where ideologies are circulated, but also where their manifestations are produced. Louis Althusser would consider the factory and Burtynsky’s image in two contexts: first, how the factory and image reinforce production and reproduction; and second, the ideologies present in factory and image and the subjecthood of the group and its components.
Althusser notes that “no production is possible which does not allow for the reproduction of the material conditions of production.” The image clearly illustrates this through its repetitive nature, as discussed above. But within the factory this reproduction of the means of production requires a degree of responsibility on the part of someone outside of the group yet still tied to it to ensure that the factory can sustain itself, someone that is not working in the same lines as everyone else and can observe the group in a conscious manner, much like the way the camera observes. Althusser continues, “the reproduction of labour power requires…a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology…” That is to say that the group of Cankun workers is overseen and does submit to an ideology of production and reproduction.
The workers as individuals have been Althussianly hailed to the group, and the group has been hailed to production by the state. The image clearly illustrates the individuals’ subjecthood and subscription to the group’s ideologies through what was described above of their garb and positions, etc. What is interesting is that the image details the way in which the workers are subjects of the group ideology and the group’s ideologies and are also the producers of the material existence of other ideologies, of which they may or may not be subjects. The workers are producing the material representations of and tools of subscription to a particular ideology. In the image, it appears as though the workers closest to the critical lens are assembling coffee machines. Let’s subscribe to a stereotype or ideology for a moment and assume that these Chinese workers do not drink coffee but tea. This makes it clear that the group is not producing coffee machines for themselves but for people somewhere else in the world. Surrounding coffee there are certain ideologies that are connected to marketing, status, consumption, human rights, etc. It is remarkable to realize that those who produce the materials manifestations of these ideologies do not subscribe to them. The group is not interpellated by the coffee ideologies, yet it is the producer of such an important facet within them.
It is questionable, though, as to whether or not the group is a Unique and Absolute Subject. Through Althusser, it would not seem to be so. The production of the coffee machines is not the interpellating of individuals in other parts of the world. Instead, the interpellation comes through the (manipulative) strategies of corporations to create a demand for the product. Just as the Cankun Factory group is the/a S/subject to itself, the coffee corporations are both subject and Subject; they acknowledge themselves and other subjects through themselves while also creating the subjecthood of others.
But what of the existence of these ideologies? If the workers or group do not acknowledge the ideologies ontologically, then they do not seem to matter. Ideologies are simply a way of associating oneself with others, another narcissistic tendency of inclusion and exclusion. There may be material representations of ideologies, but ideologies themselves are immaterial and imaginary. They are the constructed, “imaginary relationship[s] of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” This begs the question as to whether or not it is important to see the factory workers as a group through Burtynsky’s lens. While the notion of ideologies exhibits the group’s function and makeup, it also deconstructs the group into individuals. Viewers can see the way that each member in sight is connected to another member and how their existence is relative to and associated with the existence of those around them. It is like plucking the sunflower from the dirt and then standing up. One can understand the flower by feeling the texture of the stem and counting its petals and then can relate this knowledge to the mass of individuals, not to the group. Holding the flower gives it identity and associates it with its surrounding.
“Manufacturing #10A and 10B” is the manifested thought of Burtynsky’s camera as it observes the Cankun Factory and considers the existence, psychology, and function of the group and workers. The camera, photographer, and viewers, each with their own ideologies, are made critically conscious of their own existence and relation to the workers through the image and the dialectic the photos have with each other and their viewers. The landscape of the factory, made up of systems, structures, and ideologies considers itself as a whole and in parts through Burtynsky’s lens and acknowledges itself as the resulting diptych. The landscape’s new relative eye forces it to reflect on itself as a center of processes and intersection of ideologies and thought.
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and other essays. New York, NY: Monthly Review P, 2001.
Burtynsky, Edward. Manufacturing #10A and 10B, Cankun Factory, Xiamen City. 2005. China, Manufacturing.
Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company, 1959.
Manufactured Landscapes. Dir. Jennifer Baichwal. Perf. Edward Burtynsky. DVD. 2006.