Lost world

As far as the Chinese government was concerned, Ferndale photographer Steven Benson was there on a tourist visa and planned to give a couple of lectures.

They wouldn’t have liked his real reason.

"I wanted to make a document of a part of the planet that was about to disappear," said Benson, who last summer photographed 400 miles of the Yangtze River Valley that is expected to flood upon completion of the Three Gorges Dam in 2003. It is estimated that the government-driven project will force 2 million people from their homes, and inundate farmland, factories and unexcavated archeological sites.

"The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River Valley," now on display at Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, is the first public exhibition of these photos.

Chinese officials say the project, expected to create the world’s largest concrete structure and generate as much power as 18 nuclear power plants, will also prevent yearly floods that have claimed more than a million lives in the past century. Critics say the dam won’t prevent floods and might even make flooding worse in the long run. According to Benson, despite the government’s support of the project, most Chinese oppose it.

The dam is a subject of international debate, but because of the Chinese government’s efforts to silence critics (including one journalist who was jailed for editing a book opposing the project), Benson might be the only photographer to document the entire area about to be lost.

After learning of the dam project on a previous visit to China in 1996, Benson, a 25-year veteran teacher and photographer, spent three years planning his trip. "The one thing I didn’t plan on was landing in Beijing two days after we bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. That cranked things up a notch in terms of intensity," he said. "I think I was over the Arctic Circle when President Clinton went on TV to announce the travel advisory for Americans going to China. But to tell you the truth, that wouldn’t have stopped me from going. I figured if I couldn’t deal with anti-American riots in Beijing, I probably shouldn’t go to this other place."

Benson said that when he told the photographers and magazine editors at one lecture about his plan: "I remember the look on everyone’s face. It was one of surprise, because the Chinese photographers that I know said this would be very difficult for a Chinese photographer to do without having big problems."

As Benson got closer and closer to the dam, people seemed more and more suspicious. He said there were even times he was followed, and a shipyard worker accused him of being a spy.

One thing that helped him through the rough spots was a letter of introduction he had obtained from a Chinese photography company. On letterhead with an official red stamp, the company introduced Benson as "a famous professor and photographer who was invited to China to lecture Chinese photographers and to photograph." The letter asked anyone he ran across to "please give him easy way."

"These particular individuals who put the letter together knew exactly what to say," Benson explained.

The exhibit at Cranbrook is chronological, taking viewers through the five weeks of Benson’s journey as he made his way downstream from Chongqing, the terminus of the rising water, to the dam construction site at Sandouping.

Benson said the images are meant to convey the sense of loss he felt while in China. One great loss will be history. Some of the 8,000 archeological sites that will be submerged go back 100,000 years. Most of them haven’t been explored.

"We’re not just talking about the history of Chinese people, we’re talking about the history of all human beings," Benson says.

Having taken and exhibited these photographs, Benson said, he probably can never go back to China.

"Which is sad," he said, "because I loved traveling in China. I loved the people I met and the friends I made there."

Jennifer Bagwell is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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