Almost a century and a half after Thomson, award-winning photographer Yan Wang Preston found herself retracing his footsteps along the Yangtze. Seeking new meaning in landscapes that are now well documented and deeply rooted in the national consciousness, Preston’s mission was to add a layer to the long history of photographs of the region. While making a point to shoot at every 100km along the river, she avoided its most mythologized and documented areas—sites such as the Three Gorges, Ghost City, or Goddess Peak. “My intention was very clear: It was meant to be a challenge towards the myth of the river, which was made up by those idealized images of iconic sites on the Yangtze,” the photographer told me, speaking from her studio in Yorkshire. “As a myth, the Yangtze as the ‘Mother River of China’ helps to naturalize and to promote the ideology of modernization,” Preston explains, referring to the way the idea of the “Mother River” has been used by the modern Chinese media as an analogy for China’s national identity and to galvanize the vision of an expanding Chinese territory. Preston’s resulting series, “Mother River” (2010-2014), has shown at two major museums in China, and on January 28th will go on view at The Gallery of Photography Ireland, in Dublin.
Critique hangs heavy in the emotive series, which also points to a brutalized landscape. In China, however, the series was not seen as an environmentally focused endeavor. Preston reveals how images might be interpreted differently in China—in contrast to how they’re viewed in the west, where the prevailing idea of China’s landscapes is negative. Preston, who was born in Central China and relocated to the U.K. in 2005, may have a more nuanced approach to photographing China’s landscapes and its environmental problems, due to her personal history. But as a landscape photographer working in China, Preston admits, it is difficult not to engage with the overwhelming threat of pollution. She believes the way the controversial issue might be shown and understood through photography both in China and outside of it is shifting.
Emotional and critical, Preston’s photographs reflect the complicated relationship with nature found within China. Her most recent project began in 2010, when she visited some of China’s newest cities. One rapidly developing city in the southwest region struck her in particular. “Chongqing was full of billboards, with slogans about the ideal city they wanted to build for themselves. A forest city, a city with healthcare, with good transport—in a nutshell, very good wishes,” Preston recalls. “But in reality, it didn’t feel like a suitable city to live in at the time.”