Tales from the River Bank

It is interesting to contrast Kander’s ‘Yangtze, The Long River’ with another book featuring a mighty river, Alec Soth’s ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’.

In his book, Soth has chosen to do a series of portraits showing the personality of each person who dwells beside America’s mightiest waterway. Each person featured is named. Soth, through shared language and personal approach, has got to know his subjects.

It is tempting to see the whole book as a display of the American philosophy of freedom of the individual and in a way, without being jingoistic, it is.

People choose their lives within the perimeters of birth, race and geography.

Kander’s book is very different. Rather than show the importance of the individual it shows the importance of the State.

The state, through its large-scale structures, is all-powerful. The individual is a tiny distant figure in this world, almost an after thought in its creation.

Even though these ant-like human beings are the makers of this brave new world somehow we don’t make that connection. It’s almost as if these half-built bridges and towers have made themselves, like plants growing out of the earth.

I’m guessing that Kander doesn’t speak mandarin, so Soth’s approach is not available to him. He can not get to know his subjects in a personal way, so if he depicts them it must be as extras in his ‘riverscapes’

Of course one also imagines that his access to local people would be in some regard limited by government, which would also effect how his subjects are shown.

However, perhaps the most sobering thing about comparing the two sets of images is that Soth’s journey shows us an America in relative decline, whereas Kander’s shows us a China on the rise. The fact that the nation that has less interest in democracy is thriving has startling implications for the kind of world we create in the future.

America’s interest in individual liberty has been exported the world over on the back of it’s success. If a more successful anti-democratic model comes along will the same thing not happen? Perhaps we are seeing the last days of democracy as we know it.

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