The Yangtze River, which forms the basis of this body of work, is the main artery that flows 4,100 miles (6,500 km) across China, traveling from its furthest westerly point in Qinghai Province to Shanghai in the east. The river is embedded in the consciousness of the Chinese, even those who live thousands of miles from the river. It plays an essential role in both the spiritual and physical life of the people. More people live along its banks than live in the USA—one in every eighteen people on the planet. Using the river as a metaphor for constant change, I have photographed the landscape and people along its banks from mouth to source.
It is important for me to work intuitively and not be influenced by what I already know about the country. When I went to China, I wanted to respond to what I found and felt and seek out the iconography that allowed me to frame views that make the images unique to me.
After several trips to different parts of the river, it became clear that what I personally was responding to and how I felt whilst being in China was permeating my pictures; a formalness and unease, a country that feels both at the beginning of a new era and at odds with itself. China is a nation that appears to be severing its roots by destroying its past in the wake of the sheer force of its moving forward at such an astounding and unnatural pace. I felt like a complete outsider and explained this pictorially by “stepping back” and showing humans as small in their surroundings. Common man has little say in China’s progression and this smallness of the individual is alluded to in the work. I feel that there are strong parallels in China with the 20th century immigrants who poured off the boats onto American soil, a new beginning without roots. I chose to work in China because I wanted to try to discover how a country with such a turbulent recent history can conduct itself and play such a major role on a global scale. Although it was never my intention to make documentary pictures, the sociological context of this project is very important and ever-present.
A Chinese friend who I met whilst working on the project reiterated what many Chinese people feel: “Why do we have to destroy to develop?” By contrast, in Britain, many people can revisit where they were raised. This reminds them of their families, upbringing and personal history. In China, that is virtually impossible since the scale of development has left most places unrecognizable: “Nothing is the same. We can’t revisit where we came from because it no longer exists.” The landscape is changing daily. These are photographs that can never be taken again.
— Nadav Kander
Editor's Note: LensCulture recorded and produced the following video interview with Nadav Kander about his Yangtze project in LensCulture's Paris offices: