Time Lapse: Yan Wang Preston’s ‘Mother River’ Series
In Chinese, the Yangtze usually goes by the name Chang Jiang, or “Long River.” The country’s most iconic waterway burbles from its unassuming source high on the Tibetan Plateau, carves stunning valleys into the country’s southwestern mountain ranges, turns north toward the great cities of Chongqing, Wuhan, and Nanjing, and finally drains into the sea more than 6,000 kilometers away near Shanghai.
But there is another, less common name for the Yangtze: Muqin He, or “Mother River.” Its basin is home to an estimated 480 million people who use the river for agriculture, industry, and transportation. For Yan Wang Preston, a British photographer of Chinese origin, the Yangtze’s vast and varied cultural significance contrasted with its limited representations in the media — most of which focused on its picture-perfect scenic spots or awe-inspiring engineering projects.
“If you type ‘Yangtze River’ into Google or into [Chinese search engine] Baidu, there are endless pictures of the beautiful Three Gorges, the Big Bend, and the new bridges,” Preston says. “These are the mainstream representations of the river.” But the photographer knew there was more to the Yangtze than these images alone. So, after five years in the U.K., Preston returned to China in 2010 with a grand project in mind: Starting from the source of the Yangtze, she snapped the river at 100-kilometer intervals, all the way to its mouth on the Pacific coast. Purposefully avoiding the hot spots, she wove a more multi-layered narrative into her project, which she also published under the name “Mother River.”
Preston was born in central China, studied clinical medicine at Shanghai’s Fudan University, and then worked as an anesthetist for three years, leaving her job in 2003 to go on a rock-climbing expedition. In 2005, she moved to Manchester, U.K., to pursue a new career in photography. While freelancing during a master’s course at Leeds Beckett University and her doctoral studies at Plymouth University, she built up an award-winning portfolio. She also married a British man and settled in the country permanently.
Later, the completion of the Three Gorges Dam — a vast and controversial engineering project on the Yangtze — drew her back to China. Over a period of four years, Preston made nine field trips, the last while five months pregnant, into tremendously varied landscapes. At two points — those at 1,500 and 1,600 kilometers from the source, respectively — the river proved too inaccessible to shoot. The former was a remote area surrounded by impossibly steep hills and dense forests; as Preston neared the latter, she was bitten by a Tibetan mastiff and was forced to turn back. “I had to make a decision on whether to abandon it and why,” she recalls. “Looking back, it was a good decision to make. It makes a much richer project.”
Preston shot the project on a large-format film camera. It was cumbersome and complex to use, but produced huge negatives with stunning details of the plants, footpaths, and people that allowed her to observe and reflect on humanity. “I was more interested in humans than in the river,” Preston says. “By photographing the human landscape along the river, we are having to see the pictures with the river’s cultural meanings, whatever they are.”
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: ‘Y25’ from the photobook ‘Mother River,’ which was taken 2,400 kilometers from the river source, June 6, 2013. Courtesy of Yan Wang Preston)