British-Chinese photographer Yan Wang Preston describes the process of documenting the full 6,211 km of the Yangtze River as “four years of blood, sweat and tears.”
Between 2010 and 2014 she made nine trips to China from her home in the United Kingdom, stopping every 100 km along its course to capture an image. The result tells a story that is far removed from most Western perceptions of what the Chinese call the “Mother River.”
A new perspective
Preston began the project as a way to reconnect with her homeland after moving to the UK in 2005. She was interested in the ways in which the Yangtze is perceived and portrayed in China and the West.
“The images of the Yangtze River I saw when I came to London looked very different to the beautiful and picturesque way it is typically depicted in China,” she told CNN at the inaugural Dubai Photo Exhibition in March.
“Western photographers don’t have this sentimental relationship with the Mother River, and I thought that by photographing more ordinary landscapes, I could try to subvert the known version of the Yangtze.”
Rather than focusing on the scenic hotspots in the Three Gorges area, which has been favored by landscape artists for centuries, Preston chose to photograph the entire Yangtze using what she describes as a “Y Points system.”
She divided the river’s length into sixty-two 100 km sections on Google Earth, providing 63 points from which to capture her images.
“For me, all these points are equally important,” says the artist, who attempted to get as close as possible to the river at each of the Y Points.
A trial of endurance
The photographs capture the diverse landscapes as well as the social impact of the river as it flows through several provinces on the way to its densely populated delta around Shanghai.
“Y1” depicts the barren plains and glaciers of the mountainous Qinghai region where the river begins, while the first sign of significant man-made infrastructure appears in “Y8,” 700 km from the source.
Some of the pictures show industrial activities like logging taking place on the river, while others focus on the people Preston encountered.
The project took Preston to some remote and dangerous locations, making it as much a trial of endurance as a pure pursuit of art.
She experienced altitude sickness, extreme temperatures and other unforeseen dangers, including being bitten by a stray Tibetan mastiff, which meant she had to abandon her attempt to photograph “Y16” and leave an empty space in her series.
“I had to make this hard decision,” she recalls. “Should I be a hero and risk my life, or what does it mean if I end up having a blank page? It was very difficult.”
There are dangers, also, in presenting a national treasure like the Mother River in such a raw and unglamorous form.
When the photographs were exhibited in China last year, Preston says some visitors were angered by their stark neutrality.
However, the artist says she also has received plenty of positive feedback, and that people are entitled to interpret the images however they want.
“As an artist, you can never predict [how people will react],” she explains. “In terms of good or bad, it depends what your starting point is. I’m just hoping different people will take away different things.”
The Mother River project has now been exhibited several times internationally, including at the 56th Venice Biennale and the Wuhan Art Museum, as well as the Dubai Photo Exhibition.
For Preston, the next and perhaps final step is to “create a very beautiful book” to document her journey and to encourage a new perception of the mighty river.