Yangtze, The Long River

Nadav Kander: Yangtze – The Long River

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Yangtze, The Long River

Nadav Kander’s Long River series has become a document of mankind’s desire to progress and has even been hailed by Kofi Annan as a service to humanity. As all eyes turn to China, Glass explores a history-defining moment

The Yangtze River is testament to the astonishing force of nature; flowing over 6,400 kilometres through China’s nine provinces, it is the third longest river in the world. Even more startling is mankind’s determination in the face of such magnitude to adapt the landscape, harness that power and, most importantly, progress. Nadav Kander’s award-winning series of photographs: Yangtze, The Long River not only conveys the impressive vastness of the river but also reflects the ever changing and dramatic relationship between the Yangtze and the Chinese people. Thus, these remarkable, and at times hauntingly beautiful, photographs reflect both the power and the pliancy shared between nature and man’s ideas.

Kander’s quest to explore the “uncomfortable relationship between man and his environment” resonates throughout the series. Journeying from the mouth of the river to its source, Kander captures a landscape in constant flux; marked by the unprecedented rate of development. In light of this, Kander’s recurring portrayal of human beings dwarfed by both nature and the massive structures that they are simultaneously creating and destroying is striking.

Kander captures one of the most pivotal moments in mankind’s history. The world has never seen this level of progress and industrialisation and only time will tell what effect this will have on the whole of humankind. Currently “the river is the biggest pollutant in the Pacific Ocean”; even aspects such as the light are, as Kander pointed out, in some way conditioned by man’s relationship to the River: “I don’t know if the light has been there for ever. I think the light has so much to do with the smog and the pollution, which is just as old as the structures that they’re building.”

Gargantuan scale is not nature’s contrivance alone; “10,000 ships come and go every day into and out of the Yangtze and more people live along the Yangtze River than live in the whole of the USA”. Kander did not set any preconditions as to what he should or should not photograph, and why. These are images that convey an immediate impression.

What is it that drew you to China? And what prompted you to create this series?
I knew that I wanted to photograph in China because it was such an uncomfortable climate, with people moving forward at such a fast pace, trying to emulate the West; I knew it would give me what I look for – which is a sort of uncomfortable relationship between man and his environment. I then chose the Yangtze River just to be a premise for such a great metaphor – but I didn’t really know anything other than that. I didn’t know if it would be beautiful pictures I would make or if they would be industrial pictures. I just went.

Your images convey feelings of loneliness and nostalgia; both nature and man appear distant and cold. How do you relate these emotions with the modern urban conditions and progress?
I don’t really consider myself a documentary photographer so my comments on China and its progress aren’t really relevant. But I know that of course the Long River Series became a document and of course it became sociologically important because it was photographed over two years. Throughout the series you can see an amazing sense of change; you’re not sure what is being destroyed or what is being built.

It’s interesting that you use the words “cold” and “lonely”, because when the Chinese look at this work the words that come to their mind are “quite Romantic”. It’s quite interesting how words, which really describe inner conditions – which is what a lot of my work is about – are so different for different people, certainly so between the East and West.

I find melancholy and loneliness really quite beautiful. I didn’t really plan it, but it’s why I found myself in China, taking a step back and really feeling the outsider that I so obviously was. So the work appears lonely and sparse because of that. I was also struck very hard by the amount of migrant workers that move around China; nearly as many people are migrant workers away from home as the total population in the USA. That’s pretty amazing.

What was your impression of the relationship between the people who lived along the Yangtze River and their natural environment?
I don’t think I particularly knew. There was obviously a lot of transport going on along the river, but I didn’t speak Chinese and my purpose for being there was not to interview people and find out about the river. What I did realise is that it’s very much in the history of the Chinese and very much in the thought of the Chinese. There’s lots and lots of poetry on the Yangtze and it’s almost in the folklore of the people. It’s a National treasure so in that way they are quite connected to it.

Do you feel that the sense of detachment reflected in your photographs is in part due to the increasing disparity between the proportions of us as human beings and the machines we are creating?
Absolutely, I think you’ve put it really well. Turner and people like Caspar Friedrich and John Martin used to paint people very small against the might of nature. In those days they were really coming away from the church, so nature was seen as the great religiousness of the time. In my case, I just looked at it and I suddenly realised that I was making people really small against the giganticness of man’s ideas – the smallness of man and the bigness of our ideas.

Was this ‘smallness of man and the bigness of our ideas’ particularly relevant to China?
It became relevant when I noticed that – that’s how I became comfortable working. I noticed that I pulled back from people, that I felt such an outsider – I showed that by stepping back, people became small against the largeness of mankind, or the largeness of our ideas, I mean, it’s so layered – the largeness of state, the Chinese really don’t have the individuality problem that we do in the West. They’re not all trying to be – they’re not all fighting for their personal democracy; in a way they’re much happier with the whole.

I felt (in my personal feeling) that this whole project looked at China but China was so much emulating the West, that really what we were looking at is a country producing the worst of the West or trying to become the West. So I was looking at mankind much more than I was looking at China.

My reaction to the washes of light that pervade your images had been to consider it in terms of the sublime, whereas you explained it to me in terms of pollution. To what extent were you affected by the light throughout your journey?
I think that’s a fundamental in my work. I find things that are very banal and charge them with an atmosphere of beauty, so it might be quite ugly things that I am photographing, but in a very beautiful way. And I think that’s underlying what I do; it seems to be one of the devices that I employ. So light is very, very important to me and seeing this ironic, beautiful light, you know, coming through what’s largely pollution, made a lot of sense for the project. Was I that conscious about it? I doubt it – I think when I was looking at it, it was atmosphere, it was very atmospheric, it’s like being on a beautiful set.

The soft colours of the Yangtze series reflect watercolour and ink techniques. Was this a reaction to your stay in the Chinese province and local artistic techniques?
No, but there were times that I was in such strong mist or fog or smog or whatever it was – that you’d be an idiot not to draw parallels to the watercolour brushstrokes that the Chinese are so famous for. But it wasn’t something that I set out to do. When it happened it reminded me a lot of the techniques. I wasn’t inspired by that, but it becomes an obvious parallel.

In a statement you described the Yangtze as “a metaphor for constant change”. What were the most significant changes you feel occurred within the series of images itself over the time you were there as well as on a personal level?
The metaphor for constant change is an Eastern one: in the time it takes you to turn once around, the river is already a different place. The water has moved on, therefore it’s not the same river. So that’s where the metaphor lies; that in just a moment everything can change. Everything is cyclical – you are watching water go by, and it evaporates, and then it becomes a cloud which then rains and becomes a river again. So everything is a cycle. That’s where the metaphor comes in.

The change for me was when I met a man on a train who spoke English and got quite animated with me and said “Why do we Chinese have to destroy to develop? Why do we have to destroy everything? I’m not sure what is being destroyed or what is being built – you in England can go back to your birth place”, he of course not knowing that I grew up in South Africa, “You can go back to your birth place and it will smell the same, the landscape, the buildings, something will remind you of your childhood. We have nothing; most people in China go back to something that’s totally different.” So that sense of rootlessness was what I found to be the biggest change, not the physicality. I only returned to a few places twice, so for me I was just seeing everything for the first time.

But what I was really getting a sense of is that this was a country severing its roots with its strong past. When I think of America and have visions of the immigrants, the men who poured off the boats into America. I’m not going to be negative about America, but it’s been made an interesting country, and that’s because it’s a country without roots, or just beginning to have roots, but they’re not quite old enough to really have them, which is why they’re running around Ireland and England looking for where their grandfathers lived.

And that’s what struck me about China, that they’re actually severing their roots, becoming more like a new country, more like an America, when China is such an old civilisation. So that’s what these photographs are about, that’s the biggest change for me. That was quite a good answer!

What do you think you have learnt from your travels?
I think I’ve learnt so much about China and my feelings there. I think I’ve learnt more about myself.

 by Lavinia Harrington

From the Glass Archive  – Issue Five – Dreams

Nadav Kander is on twitter here

Purchase Nadav Kander: Yangtze – The Long River on Amazon.


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