Public Grand Prize Selection Meeting for the
2021 (44th) New Cosmos of Photography

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Wan Chaofan
“Yes, The River Knows — Arakawa River”

The English philosopher Simon Blackburn divided the problems of philosophy into three main categories: problems concerning ourselves, problems concerning the world, and problems concerning our relationship with the world.

Taking a photograph, for me, is analogous to probing these three questions. You could say that, through the act of photography, I am confronting the philosophy within me. I observe the world before me through the viewfinder, and after some indecision, I pick out a person, object, or event in front of the lens and click the shutter. The photo that results can be regarded as a reflection of the relationship between me and the world. There may be no definitive answer to the three problems of philosophy, but photography is my way of attempting to come up with an answer.

My photographic themes are people and landscapes and landscapes and the mind. This work centers on people and landscapes. My interest is not people in landscapes but landscapes with people in them. The works consists of very wide panoramic shots, which by their nature tend to make people appear small. This is consistent with the truth that humans are no more than small, weak beings in the face of nature. There are occasions, however, when the people do overpower nature. My photos reveal the power of humanity that has transformed the shape and form of nature.

When I was living in China before I came to Japan, I used to take pictures by the riverside near my university. There were no rivers where I grew up, so photographing rivers was a very novel and interesting experience for me. That's what compelled me to go and shoot the river nearly every day for a year.

After moving to Tokyo, I wanted to try to see Tokyo the city through the lens of nature. In thinking about this, I recalled my river photos in China. This inspired me to follow the Arakawa River as it traces around the edge of Tokyo in order to direct my gaze at the city.

The Arakawa River has flooded numerous times in the past, greatly affecting people's lives. Its tributary, the Sumida River, is known as the Mother River of Tokyo. I thought that by proceeding down the Arakawa River, many aspects of the city would come into view. But what I wound up seeing was not just a side of the city, but also the power of humanity over nature.

All kinds of water pour into a river. People take advantage of riversides and travel on rivers by boat. Both the natural environment and how people live along rivers vary depending on the composition of the water in the river. The river knows all these things. It accepts all and flows on.

I believe time is a quantity that flows like a river. People erect dams to hold back the flow of water, whereas photography is an act that stems the flow of time. I think this is something only photography can do. Although people's sensibilities and tastes may drift with time, my hope is to take universal photographs — photographs that people in any age will recognize and accept as photographs.


Judges' comments and Q&A

Takashi Yasumura (selector)

This work gives a glimpse of how high your aspirations are. The news reported on rivers flooding on multiple occasions again this summer, along with the words “first time in recorded history”. In its reexamination of the relationship between people and nature, your work is exceptionally solid, if not flashy, and it forces us to rethink the relationship between rivers and humans.

I understand you shoot on negative film. I can imagine that if you are walking around with a heavy camera, you would naturally choose days when the weather is nice to shoot. Still, I sense a lack of passion to venture out and capture those chance, once-in-a-lifetime type, encounters. I suspect your work would have greater breadth if you roamed farther outside your comfort zone.


Noi Sawaragi

The scenery and human activities are starkly different between the river's headwaters and where it flows through urban areas. I found myself questioning whether it was a good idea, given these differences, to display these scenes side by side at the same size as you did in your work here. The nature of the river and how people interact with it vary wildly, so it feels odd to force them all into the same size. What are your thoughts on this?

(Wan Chaofan)
I thought about what camera to use before I got started on this work. I experimented with 4 x 5 and other large-format cameras as well as 35mm and even digital cameras. I started to worry that I was thinking more about the equipment than what I wanted to shoot. In the end, I went with panoramics because they matched the sensations I had when I gazed at the river and because they were ideal for a series of works.


Yuki Onodera

Your thought process is very clear and your ideas are insightful. Your photos do not express your ideas up front, but rather at a comfortable distance. In this way, I think you are an artist who takes photographs very deliberately. What do you think is the best format in which to present your work?

(Wan Chaofan)
I'm always thinking of two formats: photo exhibitions and photo books. But this time I felt the large-format prints I submitted were the best format, and my hope is they get exhibited in a large space, if possible. If I were turning this work into a photo book, I would try to lay out photos of each side of the river adjacent to each other as one-page spreads.