Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow River in China. It is to the Chinese what the Nile is to Egypt: the cradle of civilization.
Historically a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered the river in the1990s, for many days, ceased to reach the sea at all. The environmental decline of this famous river is a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the 150 million people it directly sustains. Its plight also underlines the dark side of China's economic miracle, an environmental crisis that has led to a scarcity of the one resource no nation can live without: water.
Over the years, working on the coal industry in China, I became increasingly interested in how economic development in China was affecting the country’s landscape. What intrigued me was the marks that were left behind by man’s industrious efforts to acquire material wealth and the ways in which that would, in turn, affect communities living in the areas undergoing radical transformation.
My photographs play with the tension between the Yellow River's place in Chinese culture and history (it is sometimes called the "Mother River") and China’s resurgence as a major economic power. It has struck me that the focus of the nation and its people on getting ahead has meant that other concerns have fallen by the wayside. I’ve tried to show the resulting consequences for the landscape in this region, from an area that was once predominantly rural to one becoming increasingly urban and industrial. I’ve attempted to explore and suggest abstract ideas within the work. By depicting these landscapes as predominantly beautiful, almost dream-like, I look for a resonance with some of the romantic notions about this once great river that are inherent in the Chinese psyche. At the same time, these scenes also depict signs of economic development. There is a disconnect that I am looking for in my images, that I hope provides a clue to the transactional cost that is exacted on the environment and its communities far beyond its immediate surroundings.
It is these transactional costs that bring great economic value to the countries development but at the same time there is a gradual creep of destruction that has been largely ignored until recent years. That transition, which has had a major impact on the health of the population and its emissions, has come about by policy making. There is a larger question that I’m interested in that cannot be depicted visually but that I try to suggest with my photos. How has this come about? There are obvious answers, but it is the forces at play that help to organise this country that I’m interested in. China has a very good legal system that protects the environment and its people, but the country's laws are often superseded by the priorities of the state. Officials are consistently rewarded for fulfilling these mandates. So laws that protect the environment but are not high on the nation’s agenda tend to be ignored and even abused.The ability to see these connections, and through photography look at some of these larger issues is what makes the dialogue interesting to me.