Mountains and rivers are very significant for the Chinese and their culture. What is clear is that photographer Zhang Kechun masterly captures the traditional significance of the landscape, portraying the ecology of its magnificent natural phenomena. Human traces are still visible, the omnipresent urbanization and the ongoing industrial development. The last few decades have witnessed tremendous changes and that is exactly what he wants to convey: the uneasiness around such rapid evolution.
The Yellow River supplies water to one hundred million people, 190 million hectares of farmland, and thousands of factories in northern China. The historical importance of this river is what drew Kechun to document the life along this majestic natural landmark. To have been born and raised in Chengdu, in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, offered him an outsider perspective that turned out to be an advantage.

Known as the subtle provocateur, in Zhang’s photographs, the sky, river, and earth are perfectly blended in a calm palette of yellowish and grey tones, adding a calm and alluring touch. Slightly saturated details sometimes highlight unexpected appearances in abandoned places, offering poetic and almost surreal nuances to the shot. The impact of man on changing landscapes, which strangely coexist with the nostalgic and static image of the great river. “My aim is to create a modern point of contact for our contemporary and sociologically concerned eye”, says Zhang Kechun.
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Zhang, you had your first exhibition in 2010 and collected many since then around the world. How were you first introduced to photography? And how would you describe your evolution as an artist through these years?
Yes, after more than ten years of shooting, I still have not left the previous working methods or stopped paying attention to the changes in this country. Although I wanted to give up shooting at some point, I insisted on it.
Born in 1980 in the Sichuan province in China, and currently living and working in Chengdu. It seems as if your photographic body of work offers a personal insight into China’s enduring, but rapidly changing national identity and overall evolution. When and why did you feel the need to capture this transformation in your home country?
I was born in 1980 and China's reform and opening up began in 1978, so the thirty-nine years of experience happened to also be the most intense time for China’s change. I think I need to know more about the land I live in.
Is discomfort what you feel about this prompt change? What are the emotions you want to reflect in your photographs?
In fact, it is very contradictory. I like the slow-paced life in the country, but at the same time, I like the convenience that urbanization brings to us.
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“Mountains and rivers are very significant for the Chinese people. In this country, there is a cultural awareness that says mountains are ‘virtuous’ and rivers are ‘moral’”, you once said. The Yellow River photo series is probably your most well-known project. What drew you to document life along this Chinese natural landmark?
Before shooting the Yellow River, I wanted to do projects on the whole country. But China is too big so I had to first find an entry point. Obviously, it is ok to use the Yellow River to represent China.
You decided to take a walk along the Yellow River in order to find the root of your soul, you mentioned a while ago. How was the journey and how did this project change you personally?
Before becoming a professional photographer, I was a designer sitting in front of a computer every day, feeling bored physically and mentally every day. Therefore, it is very pleasant and exciting to be able to pick up the camera and go out to shoot.
You explore the landscapes of China, capturing the ecology of its magnificent natural phenomena. However, there is always the human factor present in your pictures. Sometimes, we only see the traces of it and sometimes, we can barely see the people because of how tiny they appear. But they are there. How important is the state of the individual in your oeuvre?
I think these people are a good example of our current status as an ordinary person.
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You also appear in some of your images. This makes me wonder, as a photographer, what is the role you partake in your projects?
We are all both onlookers and participants, both outside and inside.
Between The Mountains And Water, Chinese Landscapes, China, and also The Yellow River photo series are characterized by their yellowish colour palette. Soft hues that convey a sense of surreal fantasy but also environmental pollution. It seems to me as if there was a coexistence between condemnation and nostalgia. Is that right? What was the reaction of your Chinese audience?
Yes, I chose to shoot on a cloudy day and get a soft tone. Some of the audience in China feel good about them. The other part asked me why I didn't shoot beautiful natural scenery and wanted to shoot these other scenes.
Where do you find the inspiration to create? Are there other photographers or artists who awake your emotions?
Many. The landscape paintings of the Song Dynasty inspire me. In photography, Andreas Gursky, Joel Sternfeld, Edward Burtynsky, Richard Misrach, and Nadav Kander are also very good.
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Could you tell us a little bit more about your shooting process? How long does it take for you to create a photo series?
I walk on the road every day, went to find the scenery I wanted to shoot, and then communicated with the local people – I need their cooperation. Usually, each photo takes between one and two hours to shoot.
What are you looking for in a picture? Do you experiment with new forms of media?
I am looking for a subtle relationship between people and the environment in which they live. I have tried new media, but I have not succeeded so far.
How does the near future look like for you? Any exciting projects you are currently working on?
I am currently completing my Chinese series.
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