I used to live in Shaoyang, a small town in Hunan province, in the south of China. When I told strangers where I was living they said, ‘There are many criminals there’ or ‘They have many oranges’. But the most frequent response was ‘That is a dirty place’. In many respects they were right. There were always piles of litter on the street, some of which were never swept up. The water in the Shao Shui river was a dubious green, like that of a jade milkshake (a colour some attributed to the presence of a dragon that slept in there). Even the people of the town said they disliked it being for dirty, though there was often a double standard at work- those who wiped the seat of a bus or chair in a restaurant, or who insisted on sitting on newspaper, were also the same people I saw throw cans and tissues out of train and bus windows.
But Shaoyang was in an agricultural region. Whilst I often saw rubbish caught in the sluice gates of the dam- and once the burst body of a pig -there were few signs of industrial pollution, nor of the alterations of landscape depicted in Edward Burtynsky’s photos (click on them to enlarge).
Though it is clear from watching Manufactured Landscapes (the documentary about his work) that Burtynsky has a strong environmental stance, his pictures often have a neutrality about them- the sense of judgement witheld. The same cannot be said of Lu Guang’s photos which make plain the environemntal costs of China’s reliance on coal-fired power stations (approximately 80% of their energy).