Immortal Mushroom is a window onto Shangri-La in Yunnan Province, as experienced by Kat Chan and Samuel Bradley who explored it over several days
In 2018, Kat Chan visited the expansive southern Chinese province of Yunnan. She travelled across the mountainous area over one month, slowly working her way towards remote Shangri-La City; a mountainous area 3,620 metres above sea level. Photographer Samuel Bradley joined at the end of the journey, and the pair arrived in Shangri-La in November following the peak tourist season. “It is in winter, as the city sleeps, that the reserved celestial beauty of Shangri-La seems to emerge,” they write, in the foreword of their photobook Immortal Mushroom: their debut publication, composed of written and visual reflections on the place.
Chan, originally from Hong-Kong, left China when she was young to study in England, before moving to the US. She continued to visit her family over the years and also travelled to Beijing and Shanghai. However, on this trip, travelling alone and for an extended period, Chan wanted to do something different. “I wanted to have an entry point to China that was not Shanghai or Beijing,” she reflects. “I did not want to go to a place that was essentially another major city like Paris, London, or New York.” Yunnan Province is distinct. Jagged mountains, curling rice terraces, deep lakes and river valleys, carve up the verdant landscape, which stretches over 394,000 km², brushing Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar at one edge, and Tibet and the Himalayan mountains on the other.
Despite extending over four per cent of the country’s landmass, Yunnan is the most culturally and biodiverse province in China. The high altitudes of Shangri-La, nestled in the northwest of Yunnan, help cultivate its rich environment: sublime stretches of thick grasslands, sapphire lakes, deep gorges, and intricate monasteries; everything imbued with a certain celestialness given the place’s association with the utopian Shangri-La of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Originallynamed Zhongdian, the local government renamed the city Shangri-La in 2001 to capitalise on the comparisons, mostly geographical, made between the fictional place and the actual Yunnan city. The area attracts hordes of tourists, most of whom explore it through pre-planned tours and excursions.
However, Chan and Bradley’s experience was different. “I can’t go anywhere on a personal trip,” says Bradley. “I am unable to switch off that part of me, which is a photographer. And, although the intention was not necessarily to make a project when we went there, within a few days I said, ‘Can we stop having a holiday and work on a project instead’.” The pair spent about three days researching and quickly realised that there was very little online aside from Trip Advisor reviews; even Google Maps was inaccurate. They were determined to avoid guided tours and creating the generic travel photographs these would engender. So Chan and Bradley rented a moped to explore, deciding to produce a series of still-lives, which would allow them to unlock different parts of Shangri-La; elements that now compose the various chapters of the resulting photo book: Wet Market, Gold, Blue, Coffee, Square Dancing, and Yak.
Vivid images, interspersed with those shot in black-and-white, emerge from Immortal Mushroom’s pages; encased in thick, white borders that only serve to accentuate their brilliance. Poems, essays, and reflections, mostly authored by Chan, accompany each chapter, and although the text relates to the theme it accompanies, it does not explain the images. Instead, it is both descriptive and factual, ultimately accentuating the atmosphere of Shangri-La that bleeds from the pages. An interview with Dr Kaicun Zhao, originally from Beijing but now living in the UK, about traditional Chinese medicine, and cultural shifts that affect our understanding, sits at the book’s centre. The conversation ties into the publication’s title: Immortal Mushroom, the nickname for the lingzhi mushroom, a powerful fungus that can help enhance the immune system, and which is central to traditional Chinese medicine.
On the ground, fruits and vegetables guided the pair’s working process. They would awake each morning to frequent the local wet market. There, they would discuss the health benefits of certain foods with the sellers, before taking their purchases to photograph across Shangri-La. “Instead of just heading towards a beautiful landscape, we would have a list of notes, and would say ‘okay, we want to take this red pepper to this location and then we want to make this image’,” explains Bradley. “For example, having sweet potatoes one day led us to photograph these men practising archery in the Olympic Village, and we asked them to fire arrows into the sweet potato.”
The resulting images don’t pretend to be documentary, indeed, despite studying fine art and documentary photography at UCA Farnham, the genre, in its most traditional sense, is something from which Bradley has moved away. He is inspired instead by photographers such as Alec Soth. “I saw Soth give a talk at an exhibition, explaining how he sometimes rearranged the interiors of people’s homes for his pictures, including or omitting certain elements. He used the word ‘contrived’, but not negatively ” continues Bradley, “ I wanted these images to have a sense of that.”
The publication accrued additional significance in the wake of Covid-19. Chinese wet markets amassed negative connotations after Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was pinpointed as responsible for the pandemic’s advent, with the virus jumping from animals to humans. Research has since thrown this into question (Covid-19 was not present in animals at the wet market and, instead, it may have been the location of an unintentional superspreader event). However, although wet markets, which sell wildlife, are problematic, they are not the norm. They mainly hold vegetables and fruits, and the term wet derives from sellers sloshing water onto produce to keep it cool and fresh. In making a book guided by the fresh produce, they picked from one such market, Chan and Bradley present, somewhat unintentionally, a counterpoint to the simplistically negative narratives around wet markets, which have intensified recently.
Despite only being in Shangri-La for several days, Chan and Bradley capture their visceral experience of the place in a beautifully subjective book; a window onto their time there, which subverts generic travel photography completely. In a way, the publication is akin to a diary. It does not profuse to present some complete history and documentation of the place. Instead, shaped by Shangri-La and its makers’ experiences, Immortal Mushroom becomes something of its own.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.