ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Snapshots: China - Mutations of the Landscape

This series charts the work of photographers in China, India and Russia who explore their countries through their lenses. Because of the keen observation that photography requires, the artists are perceptive witnesses of the societies they inhabit.

AIRED: April 15, 2021 | 0:26:28


[ Car horns honking ]


Narrator: The upheaval that is occurring in China

is unprecedented in the history of humanity.

How can this unheard-of disruption best be portrayed,

and where should we begin?

To understand the crucial period

that China is currently going through,

these films let photographers speak,

for they alone get up close

and capture those decisive moments of mutation

that are too sudden and devastating

for the naked eye to grasp.

Their images create both a rampart against oblivion

and a window onto a world in transformation.

Thanks to them, awareness is raised,

and a Chinese way of seeing begins to take shape.



[ Insects buzzing ]

[ Distant chatter ]

Qiu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: In today's China,

some people are messing everything up.

They want to accomplish tremendous things...

[ Motor putting ]

...but they're demolishing things everywhere

and moving people away.

It's a terrible, destructive force,

and it terrifies me.

[ Distant shouting ]

For thousands of years, the Chinese respected

the fusion between man and nature...

...but with this new desire

to turn heaven and earth upside down,

maybe we've already chased the spirits and the gods away.

In a way, we can say we've already conquered nature.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

[ Upbeat music playing over speakers ]


Narrator: Something strange happened in China not long ago.

A nation that had always worshiped nature

suddenly saw its environment change

both extraordinarily quickly and to an incredible extent.

The Chinese tradition of major works

has often upended the landscape,

but never to the extent that it did under Mao.

With him, the country had to learn to "walk on two legs,"

meaning to count on both industrial

and agricultural production.

With technology as an ally, China became a demiurge,

taking its fate into its own hands.

Above all, it achieved its greatest wish --

becoming a modern country.

Having always pictured itself

as a civilized, evolved, and urban land,

it suddenly came to see cities as the symbol of real life.

As it has done with each change of dynasty,

the country wiped the slate clean of the past,

demolishing the old to build the new.

But this time, for the sake of sacrosanct modernity,

it turned agricultural lands over to industry,

displaced valleys to build the world's largest dams,

inaugurated hundreds of museums,

built another Paris,

and allowed real estate speculation

to take over the country.

In the early 2010s,

urban population figures broke records.

Although it's impossible to slow the growth

of the world's factory,

it's also impossible to avoid the stark contrasts

between the super rich and the desperately poor.


With its vast surface and its immense population,

the country is improvising

and has taken its own landscape hostage...

♪♪ the point where China is turning into

a resistance test in and of itself --

how to live everyday's life, how to fall in love,

how to project a future.

Some adapt.

Others move away.

But most are subjected to an environment

they no longer recognize --

how many times taxi drivers lose themselves

in their own hometown.


Photographers have a dual task.

Of course, they need to capture what has not yet been absorbed

by modern life, but they also try to understand

the evolution of a country

that is all the more fascinating and terrifying

in that the transformation is never-ending.

[ Both speaking foreign language ]

[ Indistinct chatter ]

[ Device chirps ]

[ Indistinct chatter ]

[ Birds chirping ]

[ Bicycle bell rings ]

Interpreter: There are two reasons

I won't leave to go abroad.

One, I love my country too much,

in spite of its pitiful state.

What's that old Chinese saying?

"A child never calls his mother ugly.

A dog never thinks a home is poor."

That's the first reason.

The second is that China is now in a period of absurdity.

It's phenomenal -- totally epic --

and how can you miss out on that?


Narrator: When they wanted to show landscapes

that were slated to disappear,

photographers often started with the city.

The Chinese city that had yet to spring up some 20 years ago

has now been duplicated by the thousands.

Both a photographer

and a traditional Chinese landscape painter,

Xu Peiwu wanted to portray the story

of urban transformation in great detail

so that a trace of what Canton

and the Pearl River once were would remain.

Peiwu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I started taking photos of the construction work

in the city of Canton in 1993.

It took me 16 years.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

It left me with some striking memories.

This used to be a fishing village.

People went out in their boats to fish on the Pearl River.

There were a lot of good, cheap eateries here.

Further on, there were pig farmers.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

[ Distant music playing over speakers ]

[ Distant whistle blows ]

Peiwu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: 10 years ago, when I was taking photos here,

it was so different.

There were lots of people from other provinces

mixed in with the locals.

For breakfast, people ate rice pancakes and sausages.

A beer cost only a few yuan,

and you could walk along the street drinking it.

Now, a beer costs dozens of yuan,

and you have to sit down.

It was much better before.

[ Upbeat pop music playing over speakers ]

In June 1999, with the new Pearl River project,

all the buildings were demolished,

and people were relocated.

In September 1999,

the whole district became a green space,

and there was no more river.

In 2003, they started planting grass

and built the Canton Opera House.

[ Distant music playing over speakers ]

[ Footsteps shuffling ] [ Indistinct chatter ]

I tried to keep a trace of the old city with my photos.

Once all the building was finished,

I found the city much less fascinating.

The most interesting thing was the transformation process.

That's what I wanted to photograph.

Once the city had taken form,

it was tourists who started taking photos

with cellphones and digital cameras.

I think that's great.

Everyone has the right to take photos.

Narrator: Canton was one of the first metropolises

to blossom into a city of light,

the Manhattan of the East that attracted huge investment

and developed an obsession with size.


Elsewhere on China's outskirts,

city dreams are growing at different rates,

depending on the region's GDP and the local leaders.


It's a challenge for photographers

to portray the transition toward modern life,

of a China that has never been shown before

because it was considered backward.

How do you take in such a vast territory?

How do you find meaning

in thousands of miles of brand-new highway

winding up in a dead end?



Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I was born and raised in Chengdu.

It's a city that rarely sees the sun.

When I saw Angelopoulos films like "Landscape in the Mist,"

"The Suspended Step of the Stork,"

and others that take place on the road...

Child: [ Hollers ]

Interpreter: ...I was immediately struck

by their poetic atmosphere and effuse sadness.

Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: They really touched me

and really influenced my work.

Notably, for the series "North, South"

and "China Route 318."






In literature,

I was greatly influenced by Jack Kerouac.

I think there's a very strong expression

of soul-searching in books like his.

You decide to abandon everything --

all the material things in life.

You put yourself in a position of weakness

to try to feel or experience

the quintessential things in life.

That's why I later adopted this way of working on the road.




Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: In areas crossed by national roads,

my original idea was to take photos of the modern era

sand capture the mind-set of people living there,

like successive cutaway shots.

[ Gravel crunching ]

[ All speaking foreign language ]

Narrator: Luo Dan went on the road for months on end --

from north to south,

and from Shanghai to Lhasa,

letting chance encounters provide meaning

to the transformation of the land.

He immortalized the wandering of an era

that seems to have become uprooted.

[ Timer beeping ]

To recreate lost ties,

Qiu wanted to go back to where he grew up --

where the attachment to the land is often born.

By bringing it back to life in pictures,

the photographer drew on both his own roots

and an entire peoples'.

Qiu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I started taking photos

after graduating from university.

I wanted to make a return

to the photos I'd seen in my youth.

So, when I used people living in the modern world as subjects,

I gave them masks to hide their faces.

That enabled me to recreate scenes

I remembered from my childhood.




[ Car horns honking ]


Henan is the cradle of our civilization.

I've always wanted to photograph this culture of central China.

[ Engines rumbling ]

[ Car horns honking ]

Qiu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: As soon as I stepped off the bus,

people told me that Kaifeng was like Beijing

15 years before.

[ Pop music playing over speakers ]

Kaifeng still has the kind of atmosphere

you found in the old days.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

Qiu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Change in any period is always the same...

but those arriving today are really violent.

Everywhere is starting to look the same now,

and every town and city is losing its identity.

[ Car horns honking ]

Qiu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: First, you must love your own home.

Then, you can look after it properly.

The trouble is, today,

people are arriving from everywhere

and merely to satisfy their short-term aims.


From north to south, it's always the same problem.

They're creating built-up areas everywhere.

Everything everywhere is being demolished.


The Chinese are so poor,

money is all they have left.


[ Mechanical whirring ]


Narrator: To find a path through the rubble of Old China,

Qiu will keep searching for remnants of the past

in places that the bulldozers forgot.

By recording the scenes of chaos they came across,

photographers have turned into landscape seismologists.

[ Men shouting ]

What comes next?

What can we say?

And what can we see

beyond China's endless construction sites?


Over the past few years, that difficult question

has been nagging at those who wanted to understand

and bear witness to the transformation.

Perhaps the answers weren't to be found

in the construction sites themselves --

they had already been given --

but elsewhere, where the land was still untouched.

civilization seems to be poised in the balance.

To answer the question of which way to go,

photographers needed to take a higher view

to rise above and to go to the mountain.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

[ All singing in foreign language ]

Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I'm photographing people

in the Fugong County

in the Nu Salween River Valley in the province of Yunnan.

They're mostly farmers, and they're fervent Christians.

[ All singing in foreign language ]

[ Drumsticks tap ]

[ Band playing rousing spiritual music ]


[ All singing in foreign language ]






Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Here, the people live in symbiosis with nature.

It's a very intimate relationship.

Whereas, people beyond the valley --

people live in opposition to nature.

It's like they're trying to dominate it.

[ Birds chirping ]

Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

[ Laughs ]

[ All speaking foreign language ]

[ Laughter ]

[ Liquid dripping ]

Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I use this old artisanal technique

because I like the rendering.

There's a special relationship with passing time.

They're like photos taken 100 years ago.

The technique has come down the years.

It can still be seen in this print

despite the fact that it's a recent photo.

100 years ago in France,

when Daguerre and Nadar were using this technique,

they had different aims.

They sought to mask the rendering

and attain perfection in terms of image

and the spiritual nature of their subject.

They truly reached perfection.

By using this rendering well,

I can give a temporal dimension to my photos.

[ All speaking foreign language ]

Dan: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: In my "Simple Song" series,

I wouldn't call the people I photographed "subjects."

Through my work, I want to identify with my subjects.

When I compare my old life to their present life,

I like my internal state to be the same as theirs.

I want to be constantly endowed

with an inner strength that keeps me going --

that helps me confront all kinds of situations,

both happy and difficult... inner strength that I can draw on for support

and that will help me deal with the future.

That's the state I think these people are in.

I would like to attain it one day in the future.

That's why I say I'd like to be them.


Narrator: In the months he spent in the mountains,

Luo Dan immortalized a population

that time has not touched.


Leaving the village, he had this to say.

"What we possess, they don't know yet,

and everything they know, we have already lost."


In China, that loss has been sudden, harsh,

and extremely large-scale.

Farming civilization will have yielded

to an urban one in scarcely 30 years.

That is where the territorial photographers now stand --

in that brutal passage

that disorients and erases everything --

that is symptomatic of an era obsessed by strength and speed.

Their images let us build a visual heritage

from the chaos, a priceless war chest

for a population that is already fighting

against collective amnesia.





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