Living Yangtze by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool

Harper’s BAZAAR: How did the collaboration with Swarovski come about?

Eric Valli: It started as a conversation with Nadja Swarovski, she had seen my work and was inspired to explore ideas to raise awareness of the work of the Swarovski Waterschool, but not in a corporate way. The Swarovski Waterschool has been running since 2000, and is now in five countries around the world. In China alone, they have reached over 173,000 children since starting there in 2008, in 101 schools. It is an educational programme/tools which are taught to teachers and community members to help children learn about the importance of water sustainability.

Together, we came up with the idea to travel the Yangtze river, where the majority of Swarovski Waterschool China operates, in search of communities still living in harmony with nature.  All my work explores the relationship between man and nature, this project gave me an opportunity to continue this exploration in China.

It was an incredible and terrifying privilege to be given this task by Nadja.  I didn’t know if it was possible, if these communities still existed… but I believed they did, and Nadja believed in me, and so, together we made it happen.

How do you hope to inspire people and effect change through the Living Yangtze exhibition?

EV: Something I have noticed over the years is that people are shocked by horrifying images or doom-and-gloom statistics but often don’t hold onto them, or remember them. Beautiful places and heartwarming faces stick in our minds, in our memories. This is how we hope to inspire people. We hope that visitors to the exhibition at the ArtScience Museum will be moved by these remarkable traditional communities which still exist in China today, and be inspired to conserve water, reduce pollution and look to other organisations to see what else can be done to preserve these incredible natural resources and traditions.

What’s the most memorable moment captured (for this exhibition)?

EV: The image of the Naxi (an indigenous tribe in China) woman harvesting barley, throwing it to the side of the field to be dried. It is an image of the abundance and generosity of the river and the land. It is a very balanced picture that happened organically. The river gave us this food, the farmers using the water to go barley and other crops. The Naxi is a special community that lives in harmony in nature.

Living Yangtze by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool
Photo: Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool

What camera and equipment do you use to shoot with?

EV: Canon 5D for digital. But all my life I’ve used Leica cameras with Kodak film for all my other projects. My next book may be on film, and I will use my Leica.

Can you walk us through your shoot and creative process for this series?

EV: You find a place that you like, and you shoot it. It’s hard to say why you fall in love with a place, a community, perhaps there are things to learn from them. You approach people and you ask them if they mind that I hang around to learn about their life, and usually they are flattered that you are interested in their daily life. It’s very simple. It’s like building a friendship; it’s sharing a part of your lives. I choose these people and places very instinctively.

Living Yangtze by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool

What were the challenges you faced while getting these shots?

EV: The high altitude and the cold were challenges as we got closer and closer to the source of the Yangtze, we went up too quickly and were quite unwell for a time. Otherwise it was cool, others may have found it hard, but me, I found it fun. No hotel? No problem, just pitch a tent or sleep in the car.

What is the greatest part about being able to inspire people and give back to society through your art/passion?

EV: The biggest problem of our time, is that majority of the modern population lives in cities, we have lost our connection with nature. Nature is where we come from. It is our key to survival. The relationship between man and nature is the essence of life, to inspire people go back to their roots, to discover the beauty of nature by themselves, instead of living it through pictures and book is what drives me. I try to be the bridge between man and nature, reconnecting people to their heritage.

Living Yangtze by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool
Photo: Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool

The ‘Living Yangtze by Eric Valli for Swarovski Waterschool’ exhibition will be officially opened to public from 10 to 27 October 2015 at the ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands.

Text by Dana Koh