Nadav Kander’s Yangtze – The Long River is a photography book, the size and weight of which matches the magnitude of the subject matter. Photographed between 2006 and 2008, Kander travelled along China’s largest river in a period of rapid transformation during the construction and completion of the Three Gorges Dam. The vast landscape photographs, too, highlight the sheer scale of a number of important tropes represented in the images: the size of the river, the millions of people living along the river, and the country’s unprecedented economic ambitions. Here, Kander’s large-format camera appears to focus on a powerful set of re-occurring themes: humongous construction projects literally towering over the landscape, men and women arrested by the rapid change around them, and bridges, many bridges, signifying the country’s leap from communism to a quasi-capitalist economic system.
Despite the apparent focus on the construction of large-scale building projects, at the centre of most photographs are people whose lives are intertwined with the river, people who work on the river, who live on the river, whose livelihood and well-being partially depends on the river. The river thus inevitably stands for much more than a natural phenomenon, but rather, it is the main artery for the allegorical body that is China. This notion of the river constituting part of a body is also emphasized in the four chapters of the book: ‘The Mouth’, ‘The Upstream’, ‘The Flooding’ and ‘The Upper Reaches’. From the hyper-modern cityscape of Shanghai, to the rural landscapes of Qinghai province, Kander documents a country that is steeped in ancient traditions yet equally re-invents itself at every bend. Precisely because of the many economic, social and political changes, Kander’s photographs are laden with the monumental task of capturing, if only briefly, an unstoppable transformation.
There is, in this metaphorically dense body of work, also an ideological dimension. The film ‘Still Life’ by Jia Zhangke highlights the fact that erecting ‘walls of stone’ upstream of the Yangtze has been a long-term vision of Mao Zedong himself. The construction and successful completion of the Three Gorges Dam is, in other words, the fulfillment of a dream that has long been an agenda for the Politbüro. The taming of the river, the site of many floods and natural disasters, thus also fulfills an important ideological function as propaganda for the communist party. The muted colours and the omnipresence of an eerie fog in many of Kander’s photographs perhaps suggest that China’s future is, quite literally, submerged in the opaque politics of the country. Nevertheless, Kander’s photographs are nonjudgmental and unsentimental as they portray one vastly changing landscape after another.
The lasting impression left by looking at Kander’s photographs is that, ultimately, the landscapes that he depicted are about to be extinct. They give way to housing projects, highways, high-speed trains, and they give way to the demands of the economy and the party. The photographs thus fulfill a deeply sociological even archeological function in documenting a world that is fading as quickly as the water levels of the Three Gorges Dam are rising.
Nadav Kander: Yangtze – The Long River is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.