Jakarta. The Yangtze is the third-longest river in the world; flowing for 6,300 kilometers, its river basin is home to 480 million people in China – one third of the country’s population.
For six months, French photographer, film director and author Eric Valli traveled along the Yangtze, capturing stories from seven communities living in harmony with the river.
The breathtaking results can now be seen at ArtScience Museum in Singapore. The exhibition “Living Yantze by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool” consists of photographs and short documentary films, divided into seven different chapters, beautifully portraying the people and landscapes Valli encountered during his travels.
“Living Yantze,” a project inspired by the Swarovski Waterschool, a non-for-profit organization that has been working in the Yangtze Basin since 2008. The aim of the Swarovski Waterschools is to highlight the importance of sustainable water management and to provide clean drinking water and water sanitation in schools and communities. In China, the Swarovski Waterschool has reached out to more than 173,000 children.
“[The collaboration] started as a conversation with Nadja Swarovski,” Valli recalls. “She had seen my work and was inspired to explore ideas to raise awareness of the work of the Swarovski Waterschool, but not in a corporate way.
"Together, we came up with the idea to travel the Yangtze River, in search of communities still living in harmony with nature. All my work explores the relationship between man and nature, and this project gave me an opportunity to continue this exploration in China.”
Valli, whose documentary “Shadow Hunters” and movie “Himalaya” both received Academy Award nominations, says that he immensely enjoyed the experience of shooting in China.
“The people are very warm and welcoming,” he says. “We had a little printer that we took with, and at night, after the day’s shooting, we would print out some of the photos to show the people. It was fantastic to see their reactions.”
The recipient of three World Press Photo Awards, his work has taken Valli to, among others, Nepal, Tibet and Afghanistan. With China, he added yet another country to the list.
“It’s hard to say why you fall in love with a place, a community – perhaps there are things to learn from them,” Valli explains. “You approach people and ask them if they mind that I hang around to learn about their life, and usually they are flattered that you are interested. It’s very simple. It’s like building a friendship and trust; it’s sharing a part of your lives.
"I choose these people and places very instinctively. These incredible people have all left a lasting impression on me.”
Valli adds that he thinks it was important to become part of this project because everything starts with education. Preserving rivers, educating children on the importance of clean water and what they can do themselves to make a difference. He wanted to deliver a message of hope and inspiration rather than show images of the pollution of the river, which also exists and has been studied by many other photographers.
“We wanted to show the positive things happening in the Yangtze basin,” Valli says. “The challenge was to find people living in harmony with the river. These communities are threatened and that’s why we have to talk about them, they are living treasure and have an incredible knowledge of how to live with nature, but also of their art, like the potters.”
He still fondly remembers an incident in Shanghai where “Living Yangtze” was first launched in September.
“One of the old men playing chess in the park came up to me and asked how long ago the photographs were taken,” Valli recalls.
“'Six months ago,’ I said. He looked at me, amazed that these places still existed and said ‘You make me discover my own country.’”
The exhibition is part of the “Art and Science of Sustainability” season at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore.
“It stems from our belief that, in order to address the critical environment challenges that the world faces, we need both the emotional connections created through art and the understanding generated by science,” says Honor Harger, executive director of ArtScience Museum. “Whilst it is clear that apprehending the science of the environment is fundamental to our capacity to navigate major global challenges, such as climate change, there is also a growing recognition that art and culture have a role to play in helping us find creative solutions for environmental sustainability.”
The season of “Art and Science of Sustainability” consists of a series of exhibitions and other public programs such as workshops and film screenings that shed a light on environmental issues and emphasize the importance of a harmonious relationship between people and their environment.
Harger says that the visually captivating photographs of Valli that perfectly portray the diversity of the Yangtze River in China struck her.
“His work not only highlights the harmony between the communities and the Yangtze River, but also encourages a deep awareness of why sustainable water management is so critical,” she explains.
It is a notion that Valli agrees with wholeheartedly.
“The biggest problem of our time is that the majority of the modern population lives in cities,” he says. “We have lost our connection to nature. But nature is where we come from. It is our key to survival.”
The relationship between man and nature is the essence of life, he adds.
“To inspire people to go back to their roots, to discover the beauty of nature by themselves, instead of living it through pictures and books is what drives me,” he explains passionately. “I try to be the bridge between man and nature, reconnecting people to their heritage.” Living Yangtze by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool Through Oct. 26 ArtScience Museum 6 Bayfront Avenue Singapore