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As described in Commentary on the Waterways Classic, an ancient Chinese masterpiece of geography from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River were “flanked by rolling, lofty mountains, which extended hundreds of miles and blotted out the sun and sky.” Today, however, the completion of the world’s largest hydropower project – the Three Gorges Dam – has totally changed the landscape of the Three Gorges.
The Three Gorges Project, located on the Xiling Gorge section of the Yangtze River in Yichang City, Hubei Province, forms a two-tier hydropower station system along with the Gezhouba Hydropower Station at the lower reaches of the river. Ratified in 1992, the project began construction in 1994 and began generating electricity in June 2003. Still, the entire project was only totally completed in 2009. The world’s largest hydropower station, the Three Gorges Dam is also one of the most massive engineering projects in the history of China.
Born in 1976, Chinese photographer Li Ming grew up in Tongcheng County, Hubei Province. “My hometown is on the banks of the Three Gorges,” he recalls. “As the Three Gorges Reservoir began to fill, the landscape of my hometown changed alongside it. Since then, I’ve been photographing the Three Gorges to record the tremendous changes in local scenery and lifestyles.”
To distinguish the area before construction, Li calls today’s gorges “post-Three Gorges.” He began to focus his lens on the Three Gorges in 2003. Every October when the Three Gorges Reservoir began to fill, Li traveled to almost every town in the region to take pictures. Alongside migrants from the Three Gorges, he took ferries from one town to another. Over the past decade, he has recorded many of the subtle changes of the Three Gorges with his camera – not only natural scenery, but also the lifestyles and sentiments of local residents whose homes were submerged due to the construction of the Three Gorges Project.
Li believes that his photos preserve stories of the migrants from submerged areas. “Humans are always in migration: We leave our homelands to seek the homes of our soul,” he remarks. In his opinion, the Three Gorges manifest the cultural nostalgia of Chinese people. Today, many migrants from the Three Gorges are still searching for soul homes. For photographers, their worldviews are formed in the place with which they are familiar and spend the better part of their lives. For Li, the Three Gorges are the focal point from which he observes the world.
Still, Li holds steadfast to neutrality in all his work, neither mourning the lost Three Gorges nor celebrating today’s landscape. In his photos, Li doesn’t deliberately showcase greatness or commonness, but pays attention to the present, with purpose of transforming the dying lifestyles of ordinary people into the shared memories of mankind.
“I merely want to reveal how people continue life after the environment has been turned upside down,” Li says. “They may lead humble lives, but they show a great sense of persistence.” He met many people while working and he was in tune with the intense emotional stress on the otherwise ordinary people.
“I was moved by the ordinary but great lives of local residents of the Three Gorges who braved rebuilding their homes,” Li declares. “In the changing world, we should respect their lives by documenting them with images.”