The photo exhibition “Endangered Life in Distant Terrains,” on display in the Old Bookstore through March 17, attempts to draw attention to the beauty and magnificence of wildlife in China, hoping to help the audience understand the difficulty of practicing photography in some of the world’s least inhabited and most inaccessible terrains. The series features the works of world-renowned wildlife photographer and Chinese environmental activist, Xi Zhinong (奚志农) and is a project under the Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE). LIASE co-sponsored an opening reception on Thursday, Feb. 14, with the departments of Earth Science and Geography, Biology, Political Science, Environmental Studies, Asian Studies and Science, Technology and Society (STS).
Director of LIASE and Professor of Geography Yu Zhou founded the program, aiming to organize a series of activities that promote the study and understanding of Asian culture and geography through an environmental lens. With this photo exhibition in particular, Zhinong also aimed to create awareness regarding how people in China, undaunted by the high complexity of the task, are working to preserve endangered animals.
The reception began with four of Zhinong’s documentary clips, which featured black snub-nosed monkeys, Tibetan antelopes, snow leopards and green peacocks. Zhou translated the aside and introduced audiences to both the animals’ beauty and the fact that they are endangered. Afterwards, Zhinong himself connected with the audience via Skype and answered a series of questions. Students described Zhinong’s photos and talk as inspiring. Alice Fan ’22 commented, “[I came] to realize that animals are just like us. They risk everything to protect their children from danger, show love towards each other, [and] hang out together as a group, just as humans do.”
Zhinong first encountered wildlife photography in 1983 when he served as a teacher’s assistant in the shooting of a film. At the time, people making the movie did not know how to photograph birds without disturbing them. Zhingong recalled, “For most of the time when the crew got to a new spot, they rallied the villagers to help them catch the birds, fed them for a few days to calm them down, tied up their legs with nylon ropes and then put them back on tree branches before shooting.”
Zhinong was not satisfied with the processes he witnessed. During the shooting, Zhinong saw a wild bird sweeping through the sky and urged the photographer to capture the image. Yet to his great confusion, the photographer refused. It was then that Zhinong became intent on learning photography, determined to film actual soaring birds. He has now been working in the field for more than 30 years.
When asked how he feels about the future of the animals he dedicated his life to photograph and preserve, Zhinong described himself as a “pessimistic optimist.” On one hand, he noticed that an awareness of and interest in environmental protection among the Chinese public has been sharply on the rise in the past two decades, from the Golden Monkey Movement in 1995 to the most current Green Peacock Movement. He was particularly glad to see more environmental activists from younger generations. But in terms of the broader environment in China, he remains pessimistic due to the numerous ongoing expansion projects.
While Zhinong’s photography illuminates the public’s appreciation of wildlife and nature, Zhou expressed concern about how the medium might encourage people to visit the shooting spot and disturb the wildlife. Zhinong responded by stressing the importance of building an emotional attachment to the wildlife in order to foster awareness of preservation. His photos aim to establish civilian interest in Chinese environmental protection; in the past, China’s environmental preservation was executed in either a top-down approach or in the form of propaganda.
In the past few decades, many international NGOs, as well as Zhinong and his organization, have been working cooperatively with local villagers to preserve the habitats of wildlife in China. However, the persistent construction of power plants and dams has imposed multiple obstacles. For instance, when a company issues a new project, its own consulting wing evaluates the location and makes the environmental statement. As a result, the final decision always gives power to the company, placing the environment at the mercy of corporations. Such is the case of the rainforest, which is home to the endangered green peacock and numerous other rare species in the Yunnan Province of China. Companies sacrifice the lives of the green peacock for profits even though the economic efficiency of this strategy is questionable, as the power plant operates at low capacity and lacks sufficient management.
Zhinong’s fight for wildlife is ongoing. His latest project involves training the local Tibetans to assist in filming snow leopards. By providing equipment and training, he aims to supply local people with the skills, knowledge and artistic capacity to photograph the animals in their homelands. In this way, protecting them becomes an integral part of the interests and livelihood of the photographers themselves.
In an email interview, Laboratory Coordinator Richard Jones, who curated “Endangered Life in Distant Terrains”, explained his design of the space: “The show kind of curated itself, really. There were three ecosystems—the Tibetan plateau, a rainforest and grasslands—where the animals already had a relationship. I hope I placed the images so that the viewer gets a sense of the specific natures of the wildlife that the photographer has captured: the soul of a snub-nosed monkey, the alertness of a green peacock, and the power of a yak.” In this way, just as Zhinong’s work aims to bring environmental appreciation to China, so this exhibit brings the country’s beauty and biodiversity to Vassar.