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Photographer seeks answers in a 300km journey from Chengdu to the sea

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“This water confuses me.
When I’m by the river I find myself wondering:

Who am I?
Where am I?
What am I?”

Another river by Roni Horn

Photographer Wei Wu’s final project at the London College of Communication (LCC) and resulting book is the result of a solitary walk from the source of the Funan river in her hometown Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China to its mouth. And yet, there is more to this series than the arduous 300km journey that led to its creation. Though originally pursued as a dedication to her grandparents and as a nostalgic revisiting of her past, the artist learned more about her present self than she had initially envisioned, walking through familiar and foreign terrain with the time to reflect. Meeting Myself Coming Back is about one individual’s quest for answers, our place in the world and our relationship with others. Despite its introspective nature, the imagery and evolution of thought found within the photo book’s pages touch upon an essence with which we can all likely resonate.

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What did you study prior to coming to LCC?
“I studied Broadcasting, TV Editing and Directing at Chongqing University. We made short films, wrote up transcripts for radios, made a short movie. I worked for three months on an advertisement for a school project—it was commercial, but never seen by a large audience as it was just coursework. It was not something I could share with others. Consequentially, it felt useless and I wanted to do something more meaningful. I wanted to feel more of a personal achievement from my work, to create something relatable to other people. Through photography, I was behind the camera though discovered that I had more access to people.”

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What drew you to the idea of walking the entire course of the river Funan?
“I live at the point where the Fu and the Nan rivers meet and become the Funan. The government has since changed the official name to the Jin River, but we still call it by its old name. Since I was eight years old we lived by the side of the river; I grew up there. My bedroom window opened up onto the river. All my school experiences were spent passing the river everyday on foot. It was a 20 minutes walk to school. Now I’m 24, and the river has always been there, flowing eternally, witness to all my past and present and sense of nostalgia, flowing eternally and quietly. Living in London, the Thames often reminded me of the Funan and appeared in my dreams from time to time.

Rivers have nourished human civilisation since ancient times, from the Indus-Ganges River
in India to the Nile in Egypt. In this sense, human civilisation, in its early days, can also be called river civilisation.”

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How did you choose the title Meeting Myself Coming Back?
“Originally I called it Farewell Childhood, though took on this new name. I realised I didn’t need to say farewell, because it was a part of my life, and so it’s still here somehow, but I don’t need to live forever in the past. The project is rooted in what was for me now. This second I am speaking has already passed.”

This was part of a multimedia project, can you explain more about that?
“I kept a diary from the source to the end which currently exists as a pdf—this was more chronological than the photographs in the book. I only shared this with close friends and family at the time. I wrote everything, feelings, distances, time spent walking, you can see how the scenery changes. I recorded the kilometres covered using an app. I also did a radio project, I recorded things everyday. Everything was in Chinese though. In China I want to continue to combine word and image.

Though initially reluctant to share this with other people, I became more open to sharing the more I walked. The Fu and the Nan are two different rivers which combine to become the same, they all renter the sea and become other rivers. When I discovered that all different rivers are all part of the same, I realised that I could share this with more people, as we too are all the same. We give names to rivers as they are passing by, but they don’t know. It’s the same with race and culture.”

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Can you tell us more about the journey itself?
“This journey took three months and I walked over 300km, starting from my home in Chengdu, the point where the two rivers converge, all the way to the sea. Later it merged with with the Minjiang River in Jiangkou Town of Minjiang County. and then flowing southward and merging with the Dadu River and the Qingyi River, and subsequently flowing southward into the Changjiang River in Yibin City. The two rivers are also collectively called the Jinjiang River, since in the Han Dynasty many women came to wash yarns or brocades there. The two rivers are the prerequisite to the city, and also the cradle for the civilization of the city. The cities, towns and villages through which I passed have their own complex histories which somehow merge with our own. The history of the river itself can be traced back to 2300 years ago.

I wasn’t always taking photographs, most of the time I was just walking and observing; when it was raining I couldn’t take photographs with my film camera anyway. The government doesn’t put much money into maintaining the area, so sometimes there were no roads and I had no other choice but to take other routes. My mother and some friends wanted to walk with me, but it was really important for me to do this alone.”

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Why was it important that this was a solitary activity?
“I was thinking all the way, I was meeting myself coming back. Walking along the river I always feel as though I’m with my grandparents—I constantly recalled childhood memories. I found it difficult to photograph grandparents with their children; it was very emotional. The river journey was inspired by my grandfather’s passing and served as a gift for my childhood, and my childhood was all about my grandparents. Detached from my own life, it was interesting to see details I never usually noticed. I had to talk to people, to ask how to get to the river.

I was looking for answers, the question was about the river—where does it come from? Where does it go? Nobody thought I could do this—my parents thought it was impossible. They suggested I tell the tutor that I did this without really walking the entire length. But I’m a serious person, I don’t tell lies. Where the two rivers meet, I thought to myself, demonstrates that all rivers are the same. Our life never stops. I knew myself better from this walk—I thought that to be a good photographer you must also be a good person, put others before yourself, then only can you become a good photographer.”

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Where did you sleep?
“I tried to stay in hotels when I could, but sometimes there were none and my parents would pick me up for the night—and then bring me back to where I was walking from the next day.”

Did you encounter any obstacles along the way?
It was my first time using a film camera and I didn’t do the test as I thought it would be fine. After a few weeks using the Fuji GF670, it broke. I was using medium format. The camera did work, but 7-8 out of each roll were out of focus and only 2 images were usable. I walked 8-10 hours a day and I didn’t realise it was broken, during which time I shot loads of rolls. I sent them off to another city to get developed and discovered the issue. Initially I wasn’t sure whether it was a problem with the camera or with my eyesight. I did lose some good images but I try not to look at them! At this point I wanted to give up, but after getting some advice from my tutor and a friend I was advised to change to digital. But I didn’t want to so I bought a Mamiya 7 II one month into the journey. I sent the Fuji to Shanghai for repair, but I couldn’t trust it anymore! I never had a boyfriend despite being 24, so for me sometimes my camera is like my boyfriend, and this one was unfaithful. But some of my favourite photographs from the series came from the broken camera, including the image of the man looking at the sun, the bird, the girl picking a flower—they all come from this stage.”

What did you hope to photograph?
“I had no preconceived idea, I had to find out what I was trying to do during the actual process. A close friend told me “you have to figure out what you’re doing or you’ll waste your money doing this trip”. I wasn’t concerned, as I learned something new every day. When my camera broke, I just got a new one that was perhaps more appropriate for this project—it felt like divine intervention. That, and my favourite pictures all came from the broken camera.

New buildings appeared during the journey, erected by the Chinese government. I just accepted the truth which I originally found frustrating, but I found a way to work with it. The government paid farmers to move elsewhere. I didn’t feel an urgent need to save the river; it’s not natural but people need housing. If everything changes you can’t be black and white and say it’s good or it’s bad.

I had never photographed landscapes much in the past, but outside the city I had to focus on these things. I felt the landscapes. No two rivers are the same, though they are all part of the same thing, they each have their individual topographies, flow rates etc; they have given birth to different landforms and natural surroundings. Rivers witness and inherit human civilisation.”

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After completing this project, did you feel any closer to the answers you were seeking? What changed in you?
“The journey helped me learn about life—what life is about. It’s not about the past, nor the future, but the present. You can’t be happy if you are always anticipating the future. When people ask me what I will do when I get older, I always jokingly tell them I will get a boyfriend and get married. It’s important to stay rooted in the present. Now I’ve left the journey, it’s quite hard to live by this, but I do continue to practice meditation. A while back before undertaking this work, my buddhist master told me that if you throw a stone in the river, the water becomes murky. It’s the same with thoughts. The secret to maintaining your calm is to step back from the river. This was the original inspiration for creating this project, now that I can see it retrospectively.

I don’t consider myself a buddhist, as I don’t understand all the things going on in the religion. But through meditation I wanted to become calmer. During the course of this journey, I thought more about the world and the interconnected nature of it. I became more empathetic; I realised that we and all the others who make up the world share the same sadness and happiness. Going back, this was the main reason I changed the name of the series to Meeting Myself Coming Back; it is about my life, but also other peoples’ lives. It was no longer just about my own childhood, but about everything. I became a vegetarian during the journey. It’s not in the book, but I photographed a snake after becoming vegetarian. After I photographed it the snake died, it was run over by a car. I’m terrified of snakes but I put it to the side of the river as a sign of respect.

I returned to a park I knew growing up, Baihuatan, which means hundreds of flowers, the colours were changing, from vivid summer colours to autumnal shades of orange and brown. No one can step into the same river twice as it’s always flowing, the seasons change, but so do we.”

What’s next for your project?
“I think I’ve worked enough on this project having produced the book, though currently there are only five copies in existance so it hasn’t been published commercially. I needed to show multiple photographs at the same time so it’s a foldout book”.

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All images © Wei Wu

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