Everyone I showed Slowly Down The River casually over drinks or at a dinner table, when there is no time to read the introduction, immediately assumed that these photos were taken in a war zone, after an earthquake or other catastrophic event. How better to arouse a viewer’s curiosity by taking expectations for a ride? Photographer Yasuhiro Ogawa scores for a comfortable lead before the match has even started — and it will get even better.
The premature conclusion is not without reason. Images of damaged buildings, people passing or standing on rubble, heavy construction equipment at work, steel enforcement rods in concrete sticking out, streets being cleared of debris, sometimes even smoke rising into the skies. The pictures often ressemble the photographs from Sarajevo or Beirut; is it because photojournalism from these types of events has become so formulaic and predictable making us easily jump at conclusions based on initial visual impressions? A very interesting question, but surely a topic for another discussion.
The scenes depicted in this superbly edited book are indeed of an event of catastrophic proportions, except that the cause is entirely man-made and intentional. What we see here is evidence of demolition of towns and resettlement of their populations during the process of construction of the Three Gorges Dam that spans the Yangtze River. To create this enormous hydro-electric power generating project of truly epic proportions, a vast area giving home to 1.24 million people and including archaeological and cultural sites was flooded and entire towns demolished and subsequently submerged in water. The controversy around this project was widely reported over the last ten years, but here someone has gone out to record what the effect is on the people affected by it.
“The tension rises slowly, very slowly, but its devastating impact will be inevitable.”
Looking over the pictures repeatedly, one cannot escape an underlying quiet, deep and discomfortable tension emitting from the photos. This is exercabated by the fact that this not a sudden, big bang event. The tension rises slowly, very slowly, but its devastating impact will be inevitable, just as the continuously rising water levels. There is no battle to fight, no courage to show, no refuge or shelter to seek. It is the most despairing of confrontations, not unlike a cold war with the difference that its outcome is already decided when it starts — undoubtedly an unbearable fate. The consequence is to internalize the conflict, transforming it to a battle of the mind, and here within the mind only, and in this series Ogawa has totally succeeded in turning the invisible into something visual by means of his photographs. Yet one should not expect anything literal. Using a 35mm handheld camera the pictures show a ethereal quality, one could say a dream within a nightmare. These highly pregnant, often grainy and shadowy images flow by the viewer, like the passing of man-made history or of the river itself, continuously swelling. What at times may even appear as a romantic boat journey through China will slowly enter the reader’s mind and become clearer until full comprehension.
After a while I found myself searching for any signs of optimism in the photos. Some flowers perhaps, or children playing. There is nothing of this. The people depicted all seem to have the same the same leaden facial expression. The single laughing face in the book belongs to an old lady, and we don’t know whether it is laughter of joy or the sign of oncoming insanity.
The work effortlessly transcends the too common classification of photography. Is it art, is it documentary? It just does not seem to matter. Slowly Down The River, which was nominated for the 2006 Leica Oskar Barnack Award, is a very sensitive and personal account of the photographer’s encounter with the land, its people and the immense burden of a larger scale history weighing down on them. History that, we know, just continues to repeating itself.
A marvellous photo book.
Yasuhiro Ogawa was born in 1968 in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan. He started to take pictures at the age of 24, influenced by the work of Sebastiao Salgado. The first exhibition titled “Futashika-na-Chizu” was held at Ginza Kodak Photo-salon,Tokyo, in 1999. In 2000, won the 37th Taiyo award for that work. Since then, his work has appeared in many publications in Japan. In 2009, he won The Photographic Society of Japan Newcomer Award. In 2006 he was nominated for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.
Slowly Down The River can be purchased in the Japan Exposures Book Store.
All images © Yasuhiro Ogawa, used with permission.