Photographer Zeng Nian by his exhibition along the Siem Reap River © Soumyadip Ghosh

Photographer Zeng Nian by his exhibition along the Siem Reap River © Soumyadip Ghosh

Zeng Nian’s images in the body of work ‘A Quiet River: Construction of the Three Gorges Dam’ are sultry, panoramic spreads on China whom many consider as art photography. But to Zeng, he is a documentarian at heart.

His exhibition will open at 6.00PM today along the riverside across from the Angkor Sayana Hotel & Spa today. The exhibition is part of the inaugural GreenLight Exhibition Series, jointly supported by the AIMF (L’Association Internationale des Mairies Francophones), Ville de Genève, and Siem Reap Government.

Born in 1954 in Jiangsu Province, China, Zeng was exposed to photography from an early age and would take photographs for fun using a camera borrowed from friends.

He was 12 years old when the Cultural Revolution swept all over China. Afflicted by the hardships he saw around him, he had wished he could document the events that happened then but was too poor to buy a camera.

“I knew this was an extraordinary time for China,” he said when met in an interview in Siem Reap. “I wanted to photograph the things and people I knew would disappear one day.”

As he was unable to continue with his studies, Zeng worked as a sailor where he first encountered the Yangtze River. The river which originates in the Tibetan plateau and empties itself at the Pacific Ocean is Asia’s longest and the pulse of China’s early civilizations.

Zeng started his photography career in France which he left for in 1985 and currently lives in Paris. Over the years, he made frequent trips to China to photograph for various French and American publications such as Le Monde and New York Times (NYT) and visit family and friends.

But it was until 1996 that he was to revisit the Yangtze River with a camera on an assignment on the construction of the Three Gorges Dam by the NYT Magazine.

The Chinese government had started building a massive dam called ‘The Three Gorges’ which would be the world’s largest hydraulic dam, submerging hundreds of towns and villages and displacing millions of people in the process.

At first, Zeng documented the construction of the dam using a 35mm camera and later switched to a 6×17 camera and black-and-white film instead.

His photographs were rejected by newspapers and magazines initially because they were seen as unconventional. “They can’t use these pictures as they were unsuitable for the publications’ layout,” he said with a chuckle. “What’s more, these images are not colour.”

Despite the criticism, Zeng persisted with his approach. He photographed villages that had been earmarked to be flooded by the dam. He ate with construction workers and took portraits of them. Sometimes, these workers posed for him, other times he took images of them toiling under the sun. His final images on the body of work were taken in 2012, the year the dam was completed.

Shortly after completing his body of work, Zeng returned to the dam vicinity to meet the people he photographed. He has since turned his lens on the workers to create portraits for his new project.

“I am neither an artist nor a journalist,” he said. “I merely photograph because I know that when all these scenery have disappeared, at least I still have some photographs for myself.”

Catch Zeng Nian’s ‘A Quiet River: Construction of the Three Gorges Dam’ at 6.00PM this evening at the Angkor Sayana. The exhibition is part of the inaugural GreenLight Exhibition Series, jointly supported by the AIMF (L’Association Internationale des Mairies Francophones), Ville de Genève, and Siem Reap Government.