404: China’s abandoned nuclear city

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Li Yang returned to photograph his hometown, an abandoned city known as 404, which was once China’s largest nuclear base

404 is the name of an abandoned city in the Gansu province of northeast China, situated within the sandy plains of the Gobi desert. The city was built in 1958; it occupied an area of 4 km2 and included a factory, police station, school, and a residential area. In the 1990s, it was China’s largest nuclear base, and there were almost 100,000 people who lived there. There is no official report on what happened to 404, but according to photographer Li Yang, a third generation citizen of the city, the lack of decent medical facilities, an education system, and other supporting structures, drove residents to relocate in 2005.

Yang was born in 404 in 1984, and lived there for 19 years until he moved to Sichuan to study computer science in 2003. By his second university break, his family had relocated to a different city. “This sudden departure brought on a feeling of loss,” says Yang, who  never studied photography, but was interested in the medium, and decided to return to photograph the remains of the places he remembers.

© Li Yang
© Li Yang
© Li Yang

404 Not Found comprises photographs made between 2013 and 2016. Yang visited the city four times, staying for three days on each visit. With no place to stay the night, he drove back and forth every day, following a carefully planned itineraryto save time. “I wanted to shoot the scenes which held my living experiences and memories, like my kindergarten, the public bathroom, and my home,” he says.

Yang’s images are often symmetrical with a one-point perspective; the main subjects of his photographs are always centered within their surroundings. “I was there to talk to the city face-to-face,” he says, explaining his favourite image of two leafless trees that stand among a desolate landscape. “I planted them in front of my home when I was four years old,” he says “When I came back to shoot the photos in 2016, I found my home was demolished. One tree had died, but the other was still alive.” Yang finds meaning in images like these, where there is a play between the disappearance of the physical object, and the immortality of it in his memory. “For others, these places are just empty buildings, but I see them as they were before. This place was once my home, filled with life.”

404 Not Found by Li Yang is published by Jiazazhi

© Li Yang
© Li Yang
Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.