Looking at Pictures in Southwestern China

Feature Story - 2010-08-12
John Novis writes from Dali, to which Greenpeace was invited for a photography exhibition.

Photographer Lu Guang's mother looks closely at her son's photographs at the 2010 Dali International Photo Exhibition

John Novis, head of the Greenpeace International Photo Desk, guest blogs from Dali, Yunnan, to which he was invited for a photo exhibition.

Today the 2010 Dali International Photo Exhibition comes to an end after an eventful week of presentations, seminars and photo exhibitions. I was fortunate to have been invited and well looked after in this most beautiful of ancient Chinese cities, Dali in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Greenpeace secured four good-sized galleries near the tourist bar street just by the impressive Wuhua Tower in the centre of town. We had four photo exhibits: Nick Cobbing's 2009 trip to Greenland with the Arctic Sunrise, Chinese photographer Lu Guang's series on the severe drought in Yunnan in 2010, and another series on water pollution around China, and my own photos of the Tibet Plateau, the Himalayas, and the disappearing Rongbuk Glacier of Mount Everest.

Between presentations and media interviews at the gallery, I could see that Lu Guang's powerful images of harsh pollution and devastating drought were having a profound impact on the festival-goers. One Californian photographer came over to me at our friendly local coffee bar next to the gallery and said he was truly speechless at the power of the work. Just at that moment, Lu Guang appeared, and the American gentleman felt his whole trip was now perfect, having met the great Chinese artist.

Photographer Lu Guang and a reporter

Later in the day my colleagues jokingly said, "Come with us! We want to show you something." To my surprise, I was confronted with a huge picture of myself outside the cultural centre with my name and info in Chinese characters. I wasn't sure how I felt, but had to have a photograph to send to the folks back home.

There was also huge interest in the 1968-2007 Rongbuk Glacier comparison picture I took on the Greenpeace Everest expedition. So much so that the organisers of the exhibition announced that they want to put the print on permanent show at the modern museum and culture centre near the old town. It turned out there were four selected from the thousands of pictures exhibited, and in true China style, a large handing over ceremony took place with the mayor, curators and local government officials for the print exchange and a large photo op.

Yunnan Television interviews John Novis

Interestingly this is the same comparison picture that Greenpeace China gave to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on a recent visit to China. Allegedly the picture hangs in his office in the UN Secretariat Building at the UN headquarters in New York City. Ban Ki-moon told Greenpeace he wanted to see the photo everyday to remind him of the importance of climate change.

I found out that Dali is home to the Bai ethnic minority, and most of the people in the local government are either Bai or connected descendents. The Bai are still very close to nature. The huge Erhai Lake is pollution free and the surrounding environment is clean and cared for. After giving my presentation on Greenpeace photography, I found out why we were turning out to be so popular: Our work to save the planet resonated strongly with the local government, media, students and townsfolk. The timing, too, was impeccable as I was able to add the powerful Dalian oil spill photographs at an almost breaking news timing. It turned out many folk were unaware of the spill and shocked by the images. We were indeed raising the festival, through photography, to a cutting edge level.

Later we heard Lu Guang had won an award for best picture at the whole exhibition, Greenpeace won a special contribution award, and I was asked to join the jury for a photo competition on 'Yunnan environment', the winner of which was announced at the closing ceremony.

Whilst all this was happening, my Greenpeace China colleagues were giving interviews to local television in between dealing with the oil spill pictures demanded by the global media. By the way, Yunnan local media is not to be sniffed at and is in fact watched by millions right across southwestern China.

We went from strength to strength throughout the week and, from the comments flowing in, we are seen as leaders of our field and an inspiration to others.

There was a feeling of sadness this morning when my colleagues, Zhong Hu, Kuang Yin, Fish and the master himself, Lu Guang, were making our own way back across China. We had worked closely together and pulled off a great memorable show and managed to command a whole new audience, a great many of whom hadn't realised there were activists and supporters all over the globe striving to make the world a greener and safer place, as shown to them though the compelling Greenpeace photo archive.