Nadav Kander recently won the Prix Pictet, a prize for environmental photography that had on its shortlist very impressive group of photographers. I saw recently on A Photo Editor a slideshow of his recent China work, specifically examining the area around the Yangtze that was about to be flooded once the Three Gorges Dam was completed.
This video is interesting in its own right (of course I’d also love to see these pictures smooth and large, in a book or on the wall), not just because of the extra information we get about some images, because of the pace that Kander gives it, both with his sequencing and his narration. There’s a quietness, a solidity to the presentation that’s consistent with the tone of the images themselves. As he starts off by telling us how he is not one to approach the subject matter with a predetermined concept and being empty-minded, all we see is a black screen. It fades up into a shot of distant ships, sitting at the bottom of the frame that is mostly cloudy and almost white. It’s as if he’s asking us to take a breath and close our own eyes for a bit before we see the pictures. As the slideshow goes on his narration pauses for long moments, and in these silences, where all we can do is look, the images become more vivid. His voice provides a kind of frame. I find myself looking more intensely at these pictures because of this, partly because of the imposed pace of the slideshow (I can’t just click rapidly through them), and partly because the silences between his sentences are somehow more silent.
On the one hand, Kander claims to approach the subject with not preconceptions, but on the other, talks also about travelling around China “looking for the iconography that allowed me to form pictures that looked like my work”. I don’t think this is necessarily a contradiction, but rather a tension that’s inherent all attempts at representation, between being open to the place itself while at the same time translating it into some intelligible and personal form. I don’t for a moment think that Kander is telling us an untruth about China; in fact, through his pursuit of the less crowded corners of the land he shows us parts that we might ignore if the only pictures of it that we saw were in tourist brochures. I am curious, though, about what kinds of photographs he’s trying avoid when he talks about going there empty-minded.
These pictures aren’t of grand landscapes, as Kander indicates, but of “signs that we exist”. His work here is not so much to document the pristine country that will soon disappear, but rather that moment of transition, where the construction is already underway, but the waters have not yet flooded the houses.
There’s a similar scene depcited in the documentary Up the Yangtze. A poor farmer has a little shanty house right on the banks of the river. In a series of dissolves, the movie image shows us the gradual inundation of the field. The house falls and disappears, the cruise liners on the river (where on one the farmer’s daughter has found work) slide along unperturbed. Here are a couple of stills from that sequence:
[stills from Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang dir, 2009]
It’s a quiet and moving scene. The documentary takes us into the aftermath, towards the present. Kander’s “pictures that can never be taken again” keep us in the past, suspended. Each set of pictures, in their own way, takes us into that period of transition where huge human forces dominate individual people. Each set of pictures asks us, amid what is being gained by those forces, to look at what is being lost.