Muge travels the Yangtze River, tenderly photographing communities displaced by flooding

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For 20 years, the Chinese photographer has followed the devastations left in the wake of the construction of a colossal and controversial dam.

Limbo is a state of unknowing. A fragile space, suspended in an unfamiliar reality; stranded between the past and the present, unaware of what may come next. ”We are waiting for a better life, in despair,” the Chinese photographer Muge says, speaking of the context of his prolific work, Going Home (started in 2004 and ongoing), in which he documents the after-effects of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam Project downstream from Chongqing on the Yangtze River. The human and environmental impact has been catastrophic. 

The massive hydroelectric dam, sandwiched between breathtaking cliffs in central China’s Hubei province, is one of the world’s most ambitious engineering projects. It has the capacity to generate 22,500 megawatts of electricity and enables ocean-going freighters to navigate 2250km inland from Shanghai to Chongqing. Officials have long defended the $24billion project as a significant source of renewable power for an energy-hungry nation. But that is only half of the story. The concrete monolith is built in a heavily populated area, home to endangered animal and plant species, and sits across two major fault lines: the Jiuwanxi and the Zigui-Badong. Its construction was a recipe for disaster, with urgent pleas from geologists, biologists and environmentalists starting long before the dam’s – and neighbouring Three Gorges Reservoir’s – completion. In 2020, growing fears of a potential breach of the Yangtze River were compounded by three months of extreme flooding in the southern provinces, reaching levels not seen since 1981, when the country experienced its worst floods in a century. The surge in water levels put immense pressure on the dam’s processor as it came very close to its maximum capacity. A breach could be catastrophic for the country, creating a tsunami-like wave. Following a continuous stream of ecological events, including earthquakes, landslides, rising water levels, waterborne disease and the altering of entire ecosystems, Going Home also raises ethical questions around how far humans will go in sacrificing the environment in exchange for temporary economic gain. 

From the series Going Home © Muge.

Known as Muge (meaning ’Wild Man’ in Tibetan, a nickname affectionately given to him by his friends because he moves so fast), Huang Rong has long focused on the complex relationship between people and nature. ”There have been countless examples of how man has tried to transform and conquer nature in Chinese history,” he explains. In Going Home, the photographer speaks to this innate power struggle while punctuating the emotional and spiritual reality of placelessness. Grappling with questions such as: What does it mean to no longer live on your own land? How do you cope when the place that was home is suddenly erased? What are the memories that people carry?, Muge seeks to act as a translator within the cacophony of chaos while simultaneously using storytelling to assimilate trauma. 

Since the structure’s full installation in 2012, over 1.3 million people – families who had lived on the banks of the river for centuries – have been displaced. Growing up in Chongqing’s mountainous Wuxi County, 280km away from the dam, Muge witnessed first-hand the inevitable loss and disconnection from his past. ”It cut off millions of villagers like me with three decades, or even thousands of years, of historical memory,” he explains. ”It’s not like the state of amnesia, because we know our past, but we can’t personally witness it again. We seemed to be exiled from our homeland.” Going Home brings sharp focus to the human cost in the aftermath of economic inertia. Muge calls the project an ”introspective autobiography”. 

From the series Going Home © Muge.
From the series Going Home © Muge.

The series originally began as a way for Muge, now based in Chengdu, to preserve his childhood memories. Travel was a necessity of life along the Yangtze. Making epic journeys from Wuxi County to Yunyang County for domestic goods was a regular fixture growing up. ”It would take us two days to buy a TV set, but every trip was an adventure, a geographic experience travelling through the mountains,” he says. ”The Three Gorges project had the biggest impact on me in 1999 when I returned to Yunyang town to see large-scale demolition. My memories had vanished, and my eyes were full of ruins. It was only then that I began to understand the influence of the dam, and in 2004 I began to shoot.”

Stylistically, the early works are direct and descriptive responses to the immediate after-effects of the dam’s construction as people are forced to leave their homes and move into uncharted territory. ”There were great changes happening around me,” Muge says. ”Everyone I photographed was in a state of yearning, like me.” In these photographs, time stands still. The people’s loss is palpable, not just of their land, but of memories, histories, lineages of culture that lived in harmony with nature for so long. What is distinct about this work is the critical gaze of an insider. His relationship is intimate and tender, using photography to hold and validate their experience.

“In China, we tend to be a member of the collective. In life and work, we emphasise the group of a family, a school, a work unit, a country, but we tend to ignore the existence and needs of each individual.”

For the lives he documents, home is now somewhere else. Millions of people have been relocated to other provinces, while others were moved to higher ground, placed in new cities that took the names of submerged ones. Many of them were left stranded after failed attempts at rural-to-urban relocation. ”The government promised a better future, but years later that is still unknown,” says Muge. ”Many farmers lost their land and struggled to make a living in the city. Some could not integrate into their new environment and chose to return to the Three Gorges. Still there remains no housing, land, identity, and life is very difficult.”

While Muge’s intentions are anything but political, the project echoes a complicated codependency between citizens and the state. The Three Gorges Dam Project is regarded as an example of Chinese greatness, a symbol of technological prowess and a searing point of national pride. This profound cultural patriotism evokes a kind of moral duty, a social contract in which a good citizen accepts uncertain fates for the good of the country, even those who have lost everything. ”In China, we tend to be a member of the collective,” the photographer explains. ”In life and work, we emphasise the group of a family, a school, a work unit, a country, but we tend to ignore the existence and needs of each individual.” This dissonance further complicates an already exhausted psychological state.

From the series Going Home © Muge.

The work seeks to dismantle our collective notion of mastery over the earth. Muge quietly illustrates the desperate reality of coexisting with a system, as we as a species reckon with our colossal, potentially irreversible, impact on the planet and its ecosystem. The read is a steady accumulation of human and environmental effects, illustrating how photography’s sensitive surface can contain multiples. ”Each time I went to shoot, I experienced the replay of different personal histories; like watching many fragments of movies playing at the same time,” says Muge. When exploitation of the land is compacted with loss of home, a social fragility arises, leaving communities silently absorbing the consequences.

Form and concept evolve throughout the project, but intimacy and vulnerability hold the work together. The focus on time and place shifts to experience and sensation, revealing how the passage of time has an equal impact on the photographer as much as the photography. ”The sense of powerlessness became extremely frustrating. There was no hope in sight,” explains Muge. ”The birth of my daughter and her innocent curiosity towards the world triggered a renewed willingness to explore life again. Recognising the trace that time leaves on nature has opened a window for me to understand reality in a new way.” 

In recent work, Muge envelopes his subjects in the landscape, bonded by their shared trauma as they begin to accept and integrate their new reality. The focus becomes metaphysical, a more sensorial manifestation of suspension emerges. His visual language attempts to engage our entire being, not just as a cognitive reaction to injustice, but a more visceral invitation to the vivid role of memory and its relationship to selfhood. He revisits the locations that hold great significance for his loved ones, including his father’s kindergarten and his mother’s vegetable field. Together, these fragments of life pay tribute to the land and how it has informed their lives.

From the series Going Home © Muge.

”I aim to witness and preserve individual memories. I hope these images can serve as a platform for villages to witness how the Three Gorges project has shaped their lives. They can both observe and understand this era of time through multiple phases and experiences.” 

Over nearly 20 years, Muge has created an immense archive of thousands of images. Through a practice of accumulation and distillation, he draws paths, journeys and connections, both physical and emotional, about how communities are formed and tied to the spaces they inhabit. ”I aim to witness and preserve individual memories. I hope these images can serve as a platform for villages to witness how the Three Gorges project has shaped their lives. They can both observe and understand this era of time through multiple phases and experiences.” 

In many ways, this archive has become the start of the healing process. Muge’s photography, which started as an act of control within the chaos, matures into a tool to build resilience, a mechanism for transformation. ”I look forward to living in harmony again,” he says.  

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.