Zhang Kechun, The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun was born in 1980 in Sichuan, China, and started painting when he was a child. He studied art and design and worked as a designer in Chengdu before becoming interested in photography. His first series The Yellow River documented the effects of modernisation along the river. Zhang’s second series Seascapes is a homage to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s famous series by the same title.

Zhang received the inspiration for The Yellow River from Chengzhi Zhang’s novel River of the North. The project took him on a journey along the river from the coastal flats of Shandong to the mountains of Qinghai on a fold-up bicycle, all the time carrying with him a large format Linhof camera. The Yellow River is considered the cradle of Chinese civilisation but also to be a threat, capable of breaking its banks anytime. The areas surrounding the river have been devastated by flooding in recent years and Zhang’s photographs capture the emotional impact of this on the local population with an eerily quiet atmosphere. The river constantly dwarfs the people who rely on, rendering them vulnerable to its might.

“I wanted to photograph the river respectfully”, Zhang has said, “it represents the root of the nation.” Zhang shot on cloudy days and overexposed the photographs to produce a soft, subtle tonal range. Whilst the project was not intended to confront environmental issues in the same way that Nadav Kander did so in his work on the Yangtze River, Zhang found that ecological matters became unavoidable. “I started off wanting to photograph my ideal of the river, but I kept running into pollution,” he has said, “I realised that I couldn’t run away from it, and that I didn’t need to run away from it.” Zhang won the Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles for The Yellow River in 2014.

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