Sheep graze, immobile, in the shade of chimneys, in a grey meadow in Inner Mongolia. Chemical factories have polluted the ground to such an extent that animals can no longer feed there. So, on this bare ground in China, the authorities have placed fake ewes. The image of these statues in a sunless landscape is one of the most powerful taken by photographer Lu Guang, witness of the environmental and human disaster in Asia.
The man with a mischievous smile was born in China in 1961, at the end of the great famine that caused millions of deaths in three years. A worker in a silk factory, he became passionate about photography and started a little studio. For six years, he took portraits of workers in their Sunday best in his hometown of Yongkang. But Lu dreamed of raising his sights. He embarked on studies at the Fine Arts Academy of Beijing, and realised the impact that images could have in an empire where journalists have so little freedom with their words.
After the death of Mao, in 1976, the country, depleted after the Cultural Revolution, launched itself into an industrial race that, over the next three decades, was to raise it to the ranks of the second greatest world power. Growth was its holy grail ; environmental awareness was nil. Lu Guang came upon regions populated by thousands of toxic chemical factories. Pollution was like an epidemic. The number of cases of sick or disabled children was multiplying. In Henan province, he glimpsed a farmer who was preparing to throw the lifeless body of an infant into a garbage can. The man explained that the mother, a factory worker, had abandoned her sick baby. The photographer begged him to bury it decently and watched him dig a hole in his field.
In the same rural eastern province, he noticed that up to 80% of residents in some villages were infected with HIV. Poor farmers, they had been contaminated by donating their blood in exchange for a few yuans. The doctor who had revealed the scandal was forbidden to leave the territory and activists were arrested. Horrified, Lu photographed skeletal bodies and tearful orphans. In 2004, his images, which won awards at World Press Photo, made the front cover of Chinese media and obliged the government to react. Hundreds of officials crisscrossed the region to identify the victims’ needs. Lu Guang revealed another scandal the following year, with his incredible pictures of “cancer villages”. In the Shanxi region, 50 out of 2000 inhabitants were sick owing to the tap water, polluted by neighbouring factories. The authorities allocated treatments and support, caring for deformed children, digging deeper wells to find clean water, but when the photographer opened the doors of these homes years later, all of those suffering from cancer had died. “I do not consider myself an activist but more of a volunteer, an aid worker for the environmental cause,” he said at the time. “It is my mission, my struggle, I am convinced I’m on the right side of humanity, opposing industrialists who continue to cheat and defraud.” Arrested and threatened several times, he moved to New York with his family, but tirelessly continues to roam the provinces that he photographed, to take the measure of change. The “war on pollution” declared by the Chinese government in recent years fills him with hope. Colossal investments are underway in renewable energies and on-site inspections and controls… Programmes that are surely insufficient, yet radical, to finally protect the environment of the most-populated nation on the planet.
As we were putting together this issue on the extremes of the Orient, we thought of the work of Lu Guang. Then, in late October 2018, he disappeared in Xinjiang, the province in the northeast of China whose predominantly Muslim population is being subjected to unprecedented repression and sinicisation on the part of Beijing. His wife learned that the local authorities had arrested him. As we go to print, she still has heard no word from him •
Léna Mauger et Marion Quillard