Visions of China

With donated cameras, residents of remote villages document endangered ways of life, one snapshot at a time

"The Torch Festival is the most important event to the Yi people. In the daytime, the Yi hold a ceremony to offer prayers to the gods or spirits associated with our lives. In the picture my sister-in-law—my second brother's wife—was offering prayers to the God of Earth with chicken blood. After twilight, people lit torches to send the gods back. The celebration is all bustle and excitement. We slaughter goats and chickens, drink liquor, sing songs and dance. We also invite our best friends to a big feast." - Hong Zhengyong, 28 Xuehua village Photo Voice
"I followed my neighbors to the lake of Lashi and took several pictures of villagers hauling the fishing basket, weighing the big fish with great joy. On that day, they caught one fish that weighed more than four kilograms and two that were more than six kilograms each. My neighbor earned 180 yuan from one day of fishing." - He Yunying, 30 Gele village Photo Voice
"My father is 80 years old this year. He is the only bimo [a shaman in the traditional animist religion of his enthnic minority] in Wenhai and also the best in Lijiang. He is a well-known intellectual among the Yi people. Each year he is invited to preside over various bimo ceremonies by the Yi people from Lijiang, Ninglang and Jianchuan, and I accompany him. Among the seven sons in my family, two were forced to work due to the Cultural Revolution; four lost their interest in Yi traditional culture. And I became the only volunteer to inherit my father's knowledge and job." - Hong Zhengyong, 28 Xuehua village Photo Voice
"The elder sister of my husband herds goats seven hours every day in the mountains. Among the 63 goats she has, 38 belong to my family." - Sha Guixiang, 38 Nanyao upper village Photo Voice
"One day I was climbing the mountain with my camera, and happened to see the Jinsha [Yangtze] River valley in Longpan County, which was spectacular." - Sha Yufang, 33 Nanyao upper village Photo Voice
"These are my husband's friends. They went hunting one day and came back empty-handed.." - Jin Shenghua, 24 Xuehua village Photo Voice

Since 2001, the Arlington, Virginia-based Nature Conservancy has equipped more than 220 people in 61 remote villages in China with inexpensive, point-and-shoot cameras and encouraged them to capture their lives on film: their chores and rituals, dwellings and animals, sorrows and delights—and especially their natural surroundings. Then the villagers talked about the resulting pictures to local oral historians. So far, this venture, called Photovoice, has amassed about 50,000 photographs, some of which have already been exhibited in Shanghai and Beijing. Additional exhibitions are being planned for venues in the United States and China in 2004 and 2005.

The work is part of a collaboration between the Chinese government and the Nature Conservancy called the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, which was designed to create and protect a series of parks and wildlife preserves throughout more than 25,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia). The project is China's most ambitious attempt at preserving the ecosystems within the vast area of the YunnanProvince and will serve as a model for the rest of the country. These mountainous lands bordering Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet hold, among other biological riches, virgin forests, some 7,000 endemic plant species and 30 endangered animal species, including snow and clouded leopards, Yunnan golden monkeys and red pandas. The region is also home to three million people belonging to 15 ethnic minorities.

As China modernizes, many traditional beliefs become endangered. "I have come to understand how much these villagers have to teach us," says Ann McBride-Norton, the Conservancy's director of Photovoice, "and how deeply their love of the natural world is ingrained in their culture and religion.

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