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Sold down the river

Yangtze – The Long River follows China's chief artery from booming Shanghai past the millions displaced by development

In the current issue of the London Review of Books, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek reviews Richard McGregor's book The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. Žižek concludes that the Chinese state, despite its late embrace of global capitalism and headlong rush to modernise, still adheres to the "basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics", that is: "the more 'harmony' is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism there is in reality". He adds: "China is barely under control. It threatens to explode."

Žižek's words echoed in my head as I leafed though Nadav Kander's epic book of photographs, Yangtze – The Long River, published this week by the German fine art company Hatje Cantz. It is a book that exudes a certain surface calmness in its detached gaze, its formal beauty and the muted tones of the often-vast landscapes Kander captures. However, the more you look, the more you experience a creeping sense of unease – a feeling that great chaos looms somewhere just out of the frame. That unease, it turns out, is an echo of the photographer's own distress and sympathy while making the pictures.

From 2006 to 2008 Kander, as he told the Guardian's Jonathan Watts in an interview a few weeks ago, travelled along the Yangtze's banks from its mouth to its source – a distance of 4,100 miles that took him from the modernised city of Shanghai to the rural Qinghai province in the west of the country.

"Importantly for me, I worked intuitively, trying not to be influenced by what I already knew about the country," Kander writes in the book's afterword. "After several trips to different parts of the river, it became clear that what I was responding to and how I felt while being in China was permeating ... my pictures; a formalness and unease ... [China is] a country that feels both at the beginning of a new era and at odds with itself."

Kander won the 2009 prix Pictet for these photographs. The award focuses on sustainability and climate change, and last year's theme was the Earth itself. The Yangtze "is a metaphor for constant change", as Kander puts it, and also a literal indicator of the destruction and devastation China is visiting on its land and its people as it ruthlessly pursues economic development on an unprecedented scale. It is the world's third-largest river and its banks are home to more people than live in the USA. Or, to put it another way, one in every 18 people on Earth lives along the Yangtze.

"The river," writes Kander, "is embedded in the consciousness of the Chinese, even for those who live thousands of miles from it. It plays a significant role in the spiritual and physical life of the people."

In his introduction to the book, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan tells another tale: "It is estimated that millions of people do not have access to drinking water in China, yet nearly half of the nation's waste water is absorbed by the Yangtze, thus rendering it unfit for drinking. Toxins are destroying marine life; entire ecosystems are being altered or destroyed. The river, rank with pollution, is slowly dying."

The book is a pictorial narrative of Kander's journey, divided into four chapters entitled "The Mouth", "The Upstream", "The Flooding" and "The Upper Reaches". Kander is a master of what might be called "epic stillness". His large-format camera takes in crowded cityscapes and intimate interiors; the empty, still, rural landscapes of the river's source and the scarred, desolate places where the pace of progress has been relentless and total. Young couples picnic beneath the giant span of a bridge; a woman crouches over a cooking pot amid the rubble of her town; a makeshift clothesline hangs between two posts underneath a huge geometric structure – "the beauty of domesticity", as Kander puts it, "pitted against the hugeness of our ideas". This is a poetic visual meditation on the Yangtze and all it contains – history, myth, memory, belonging – as well as a book that evokes, even in its detachment, the terrible power of the state and the helplessness of the ordinary citizen.

Sometimes, the Yangtze seems like a river that has carried away China's past, leaving behind only remnants of buildings, communities, traditions. It calls to mind TS Eliot's "brown God – sullen, untamed and intractable", except that Kander's Yangtze is grey and, even at its most vast, has been tamed by monumental dams and forded by vast bridges. (During the engineered flooding that attended the building of the Three Gorges Dam, started in 1994 and completed last year, 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages were submerged and 1.8 million people displaced from a 380-mile stretch.)

The more Kander and his camera travel upstream, the more the Yangtze becomes a kind of phantom, passing though landscapes that seem dreamlike, either totally deserted or inhabited by one or two human figures who cling stubbornly to the remains of the old ways. There is even a "ghost city" called Fengdu, where the souls of the dead are meant to rest after death. It, too, was being slowly submerged as Kandar photographed its empty streets, the window frames and doors of the houses stacked neatly for future reuse.

One Chinese man Kander befriended asked the question, "Why do we have to destroy to develop?" It is a question that reverberates through this haunting book, which is an already-historical record of a vanished or rapidly vanishing country. "Nothing is the same," Kander's friend told him. "We can't revisit where we came from because it no longer exists."

Nadav Kander: Yangtze - The Long River is on at Flowers East, London, until 13 November 2010.

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Don Hunstein was an in-house photographer for Columbia Records in the 1960s. He was commissioned to shoot the cover of Bob Dylan's 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, a shot that has since become iconic. It freeze-frames Dylan and his then-girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, on the corner of Jones Street and West 4th Street in Greenwich Village on a wintry New York day. In her memoir, Rotolo noted: "It is one of those cultural markers that influenced the look of album covers because of its down-home spontaneity and sensibility." Hunstein also captured a more studiedly cool Dylan at work on the groundbreaking Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. Both sets of photographs are on display at Proud Chelsea until 21 November 2010. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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