Dusk, storm, flood

[Spring 2009]

by Jacques Doyon

In this issue, we bring together images testifying to the impacts of accelerated modernization in today’s China. The photographers who made them have varying degrees of professional experience linked to commissions for the media, corporations, or advertising.

They have nevertheless cultivated a personal vision and produced photographic series based on an attentive observation of their environment and the effects of transformations to it. These effects are major and negative: rapid destruction of architecture and ways of life in old cities; accelerated desertification of soil, creating major sandstorms; flooding of large areas leading to displacement of populations.

The relevance of these observations is strengthened by the great aesthetic unity of each series, in which the predominance of a natural element – light, sand, water – acts to condense and reveal the tragedy underway. These series of images are, however, paradoxically peaceful. They describe great upheavals – the dusk of one epoch, sandstorms and the flooding of villages – by capturing scenes in an everyday ambience, with people going about their business as if nothing were happening. The strange dusky colours in Greg Girard’s images convey the end of a world: the old city survives, barely, amid the rubble and a radiant modernity. Benoît Aquin’s photographs show landscapes discoloured and darkened by sandstorms resulting from systematic desertification. The allegory of a town that lives underwater offered by Yang Yi testifies beautifully to a way of life condemned by the imperatives of development.

Girard is a Canadian photographer who has been living in China for more than twenty years. In parallel with his photography work for the media and corporations, he has co-founded an agency devoted to revealing contemporary China in images and has published two books, City of Darkness, on the “walled city” of Kowloon in Hong Kong, and Phantom Shanghai. He has been showing his photographs since 2003. Aquin works in the media and has been showing his personal work since 1989. His many photo essays on subjects linked to development issues have garnered a number of awards. For his images on the Chinese dust bowl, Aquin has just won the prestigious Prix Pictet for Sustainable Development, handed out for the first time this year. Yang Yi is a Chinese artist who lives in Chengdu. Having started as a graphic designer, he co-founded an ad agency and then studied photography at the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Arts. He has been showing his work since 2007.

This critical look at today’s China underlines the formidable challenge represented by the development of a country with a population of 1.3 billion. The evolution of China is already strongly influencing different global systems, and the effects will only grow. When we compare these realities to the impact of the sudden profitability of bituminous sands on the values and traditions of a country with a population of only 33 million, we must temper hasty judgments, while remaining vigilant.
Translated by Käthe Roth

This issue focuses on the side effects of the accelerated modernization of China: Shanghai is portrayed in an odd half-light that bespeaks the end of an era; land-scapes discoloured by dust storms testify to a rapid desertification; a city that lives under water hints at vast tracts of land that have been submerged…