Life of the river people

Photographer Eric Valli documents the faces and landscapes along the Yangtze to raise awareness of sustainable water resources

For six months, French photographer, film director and author Eric Valli - on a mission to raise awareness of the importance of clean, sustainable water resources - documented the lives of the people living around the Yangtze River in China.

But in the pictures and videos he captured, you do not see gloomy images of nature being abused or people suffering from the effects of environmental degradation.

Instead, there are happy and smiling faces, as well as lush land and waterscapes along the majestic Yangtze River.

These images are captured in 96 photographs and seven short films documenting the lives of seven communities around the Yangtze River. They are now on display at the ArtScience Museum.

The exhibition, titled Living Yangtze, runs till Oct 27. After Singapore, it will travel to Milan.


  • WHERE: ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands

    WHEN: Till Oct 27. Daily, 10am to 7pm

    ADMISSION: $4 (adults), $2 (children) from Sistic (Call 6348-5555 or go to

    INFO: museum.html or www.swarovski

Jewellery brand Swarovski commissioned Valli for the project as part of its Swarovski Waterschools initiative. Swarovski Waterschool China is a not-for-profit organisation which has been working in the Yangtze basin since 2008.

More than 400 million people live around the world's third largest river, with many dependent on it for their livelihoods .

Valli, 62, tells Life that the idea behind his multimedia project was "to show the beauty of a river that has been a cradle of civilisation and portray how people continue to live as they have for centuries, in perfect peace and harmony with nature".

"People who live in harmony with nature are in harmony with themselves," he adds.

That is clearly shown in many of his photographs and short films. Whether they are of nomad families on the move or of a nomad woman getting her yaks together or friends meeting in tea-houses in remote villages near the river, his photographs exude a Zen calm.

Through seven series, he takes the viewer to the source of the river where, nearly 5,000m above sea level, nomads are on an eternal quest for grass to feed their yaks.

He believes the best way to raise environmental awareness is to inspire new audiences with the beauty of natural landscapes, not "with doom-laden statistics".

He says: "Living Yangtze started with a basic observation. We tend to forget numbers and gloomy statistics, but we always remember something that touches us emotionally, be it beauty or the tenderness of the everyday."

His journey took him on a path "you will not find in travel books".

"I wanted to travel. I wanted to get lost like I always do on my projects, and find moments that celebrate the embrace of heritage and traditions to show how some people continue to live the way they have always been living."

He feels this subtle yet sensitive approach works better in making people aware of and ask questions about the environment and why it needs to be preserved.

"The amount of water is what it is, it will never change. It gives us life and nurtures us in the most intimate way," he says.

During his time in China, he also travelled with Chinese artist Shi Jia, the grandson of the well-known late painter Shi Lu, whom he documented in a photo and video series titled Pilgrimage, a nod to life in a time gone by.

For centuries, Chinese artists have travelled along the great rivers in search of inspiration. Paintings and photographs of some of Shi Jia's work, together with Valli's photographs, evocatively capture the river's changing patterns, light and life along it.

Valli has spent most of his career documenting the relationship between man and nature. Since 1981, he has photographed some of the most inaccessible locations in the world, working for titles such as National Geographic and the UK's The Sunday Times.

In 1987, he won the World Press Award for his photo story Honey Hunters, documenting the cliff- climbing Gurung tribesmen of Nepal. In 1990, his film Shadow Hunters was nominated for best documentary at the Academy Awards.

Throughout the hour-long inter- view, he had his Canon 5-D camera slung on his shoulder.

"Photography," he says, "is a bridge that helps build understanding between people and cultures".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Life of the river people'. Print Edition | Subscribe