Slowly down the Yangtze

Nadav Kander’s Prix Pictet-winning journey through China’s main artery is going down a storm at The Empty Quarter

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Why did you want to focus on the Yangtze River?
I wanted to photograph it because what I was hearing about China felt like a country moving forward at an unnatural pace. The Yangtze was the premise because I wanted a pathway or a route to take. I only realised later what a fantastic metaphor the river is for movement or for change.

What sort of cultural significance does the Yangtze have in China? Is it similar to the way the Ganges is viewed in India?
If you talk to people anywhere in China, everybody has a great fondness for the Yangtze. It’s very much part of their history – they feel the trade that made China what it is wouldn’t have happened without it. Everyone in China is very aware of the Yangtze, more than someone in New York is of the Mississippi. But it’s not a religious river in the way the Ganges is.

You’ve said you wanted to respond to what you saw intuitively, not be influenced by thinking about China. What were you trying to move away from?
It’s not so much what I’m trying to move away from. I think we in the West are incredibly dependent on our brains – we think our brains are what we are. It’s just another organ, and a distracting one at that. I can’t concentrate on anything without thoughts being in my head all the time, and I try not to let that govern my photography. I try not to go with the idea and then photograph accordingly. Instead I try to see how I feel about a place, then find the iconography that makes my pictures mine. I’m just trying to listen to my body, not my head.

You’ve described a ‘formalness and unease’ that permeated your work in China. Can you explain?
There are more migrant workers wandering around China, away from their families, than there are people living in America. You feel that a lot, that dislocation. You also feel that they are destroying their past at such a rate. It left me feeling quite rootless. I was born in Israel but left soon afterwards, then moved to South Africa and then Britain. This feeling of rootlessness mixed with this idea of China’s past being destroyed and its people wandering around… I felt myself being very quiet and affected while I was there.

So these scenes expressed something personal to you?
I didn’t come to this project with a big political agenda to show how polluted the Yangtze was. A few years ago it was considered the biggest pollutant on the Pacific Ocean, but think about how America’s rivers were in the ’50s. The river running through Pennsylvania once spontaneously caught fire! China produces so much because the West is so greedy. I’m simply not pointing fingers at them. And China is moving forward with consciousness of the consequences – it’s trying to change things.

You talk about ‘stepping back’ in these photos, allowing humanity to be dwarfed by the construction around it.
I took five trips to the Yangtze for this project because I wanted to look over my work to know what my pictures were saying about me. It wasn’t until the second trip that I realised I was stepping back. You feel like such a foreigner in these parts of China, you do tend to step back. I found myself being more voyeuristic than usual. I was feeling the might of human nature, the performance of man; the hugeness of their bridges and their buildings. And how hard people work.

Yet so many of these photos are desolate and devoid of people…
They say one in 18 people on this planet are from Szechuan province, and that’s only one area along the Yangtze. But the lack of people in my photographs is more to do with how I am. I see my work as slowing people down. The photos are quiet and spatial. I want to create a sustained stare – not in the viewer, but I want my work to look like a sustained stare. That’s what I look for. I don’t want to take pictures that lots of people have taken before.

The Prix Pictet is the first major photography prize dedicated to sustainability. Nadav Kander’s exhibition continues at The Empty Quarter until March 6.

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