By Amanda Proscia
Photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann recently visited Michigan State University’s School of Journalism to discuss his project, “Emperor’s River: Photographing Along China’s Grand Canal.”
“Rittermann’s presentations gave our environmental journalism and visual journalism students a deeper understanding of the challenges of portraying the essential links between the people of China and the troubled, rapidly changing environment they rely on,” said Eric Freedman, director of the Knight Center.
Rittermann’s work is part of the Michigan State University Museum’s “Seeing China: Photographic Views and Viewpoints” exhibit, sponsored in part by the Knight Center. The exhibition includes images from six non-Chinese photographers and is on display until Aug. 30.
His project came about in 2009 when he had little to no work in the U.S., Rittermann said. He was scheduled to do a show in China later in the year and decided to embark on a new project while he was abroad. “Emperor’s River” became a continuous effort, spanning three months during a total period of two years.
Rittermann wanted to explore China’s current economic boom that was “30 years in the making,” he said. Although he never heard of it earlier, he kept coming across the 1,000-mile Grand Canal in his research.
He realized the Emperor’s River, spanning from Beijing to Hangzhou, was the heart of China’s production. Photographing the Grand Canal, which was constructed between 400 and 500 B.C., would be the best way to explore socio-economic and environmental developments in China, he said.
Ritterman said his experience in China is one he “keeps chewing on,” although the project finished years ago.
His photos are a patchwork of images fused together to create a panoramic effect to capture “multiple moments” at once. He used a panoramic view for the images so he can capture highly detailed situations and allow the viewers to come to their own conclusions, he said.
“I’ve always struggled with how to present the story and how to get at it so it keeps people looking,” Rittermann said. “So finally I resolved to work with images that juxtapose pristine landscape with something that was totally degraded, that had elements that resonated visually.”
“Rittermann’s photographic work dramatically illustrates the intersection between daily life and environment, as well as the essential connection between China’s waterways and the people who depend on them for commerce, for tradition and for sustenance,” said Freedman.
According to Rittermann, the intersection between daily life and environment was clear in China.
“It was mostly an ongoing collision of antiquity versus progress,” he said.
“It’s not just the newly rich and the long suffering poor but also the powerful versus the nonpowerful,” said Rittermann, noting the various classes of people who live along the Canal. “I ate lunch at a place and paid $1.50 for more than I can possibly eat and that place was next to a store selling Cartier watches for $30,000.”
Although there are visible class differences among residents near the Grand Canal, Rittermann said the economic conditions of people did not affect their friendliness. “I was pretty blown away by the generosity of people there – I was this strange animal to them. The poorer the place that I was in, the more hospitality I encountered.”
The museum is scheduled to host exhibiting photographers Luis Delgado-Qualtrough in March and Steven Benson in April for presentations of their works displayed in the exhibit.