By DANIELLE WOODWARD
Steven Benson’s expedition to photograph China’s Three Gorges Dam did not start with a warm welcome. But initial hostility turned into a dinner invitation and later a family photo that is now among the images of China exhibited at Michigan State University.
Benson, a contemporary American photographer, recently visited the university’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism to talk about this exhibit, “The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River.”
It tells the story of 4 million people forced from their homes and the 30 million others living nearby whose lives were disrupted by the dam’s construction.
“One of the most memorable experiences was when a man became extremely angry that I was in their village taking photographs,” Benson said. “However, when he began to understand why I was there he invited me to his house for dinner that night.”
Later, the man requested that Benson photograph the gathering with his family. He wanted to make sure he was part of the history of that place, Benson said.
The picture, part of which is blurred, became symbolic of the peoples’ situation.
“They all know that they have to move and that their lives will be turned upside down,” he said. “The people blurred represent those that are already psychologically distant and already partly gone.”
It was while giving a lecture for the China Photographers Association in 1996 that Benson overheard photographers talking about a three-gorge dam that was only two years into construction.
“I heard about the potential environmental effects and unbelievable social effects of the project,” Benson said. “At the time, more than 2 million were being forced from their homes, and the number kept getting bigger and bigger. Most of these people were farmers, and since all of the good farmland was already being used, they were being sent to places where they could no longer practice farming.”
Benson said he was curious about how the decision to build such a dam was made.
“Part of my personal work revolves around how humans perceive time and space, and these perceptions affects the decisions we make as individuals and as a society,” he said. “The people who voted for this dam had very little to lose, which is their perception of how it affects them. But the people living in the reservoir had a lot to lose.”
The Chinese government wanted to build the largest dam in the world for electricity and flood control and to enable ships from all over the world to travel through the river, Benson said. Experts said that four smaller dams could achieve the same results without displacing millions of people or damaging the environment, but the government wanted to build the biggest dam in the world.
Benson decided to document the decision as an historical event.
“The largest concrete object on the planet is creating all of this havoc, forcing all of these people to relocate from their ancestral homes, destroying archeological sites and creating environmental problems,” he said. “With all of that put together, and knowing that 400 miles of the planet would disappear under water in a few years, I just felt inclined to make a document of this place before it disappeared.”
Benson spent three years planning the project and raising funding to stay in China for six weeks. He said he hopes to revisit the site and photograph how it has changed.
“When I was there, I always knew that the project wasn’t going to be complete until I was able to do a before and after, and come back and photograph the residents’ new way of life,” Benson said.
Benson has been a commercial and fine art freelance photographer for more than 25 years. He is now an associate professor and program manager at the Southeast Center for Photographic Studies at Daytona State College in Florida.
His work is part of the MSU Museum’s, “Seeing China: Photographic Views and Viewpoints” exhibit, sponsored in part by the Knight Center. The work is on display until August 15 and has also been published into a book.
“Benson’s work illuminates the direct connection between human “progress” and environmental degradation and human displacement,” said Knight Center Director Eric Freedman. “That’s not to say mega-projects like the Three Gorges Dam are without value, only that decisions about whether and where to build them must fully consider an array of ecological and human ramifications. As Benson’s photographs dynamically prove, the wrong decisions can be disastrous.”
The museum, with Knight Center help, also hosted photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann in February to present his project, “Emperor’s River: Photographing Along China’s Grand Canal.”