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From beauty to reality -- four decades of environmental change

2018/02/17 14:33:01

Ke Chin-yuan (Photo courtesy of Ke Chin-yuan)

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA staff reporter

Astounding landscapes are the only images he uses to capture with his camera, but in search of the sublime in nature, he sees more coastal areas polluted by industrial waste and bizarrely colored rivers dyed by polluting discharge, compelling him to turn his lens to documentary photography.

For nearly four decades, Ke Chin-yuan (柯金源), the 56-year-old documentary filmmaker, has been documenting how the process of industrialization has affected the environment, which in turn influences human activity, and now he wishes to pass down his experiences to the younger generation.

"The only thing I have been doing over the past 40 years or so is recording environmental changes associated with human action. And the only thing I am good at is interpreting the changes and communicating with the public," Ke said at a recent launch event of his book, "Taiwan, Our Island."

The book collects more than 700 pictures, a selection from the 40,000 images Ke has uploaded to Flickr since 2007, that accompany his fieldwork research on a wide range of environmental issues facing Taiwan and the world.

Ke hopes that the book could serve as a trigger for open discussion about the nature and magnitude of environmental destruction and its effects on the ecosystem.

The main method Ke uses to measure pollution is to observe the presence, numbers and behavioral patterns of indicator species. "The bioindicators signal threats to their living environments. They are just like old friends of mine. I visit them time and again," he said.

Ke was born and raised in a remote coastal village in Changhua County in central Taiwan, which has Taiwan's largest area of mudflats, situated at the mouth of the Dadu River.

From local to national

Because of his ties to his homeland and the ocean, Ke chose the destruction of natural coastlines as his first subject to pinpoint the causes of the disappearance of coastlines and to educate the public on the priceless values the wetlands have provided for local residents and the environment.

At first, Ke documented marine and coastal ecosystems in 12 coastal regions designated for protection.

But the scope he has been monitoring soon expanded to include more than 100 sites nationwide, including at least 16 outlying islands surrounding Taiwan proper, when he discovered that the extent of the degradation of the ecosystems has happened at a much faster pace than he had previously thought.

Through the images he has captured from the same viewpoint at different times, younger generations can reflect on the relationship between humans and nature, the central theme that runs through much of Ke's work.

For example, one series of photos of sediment deposits in the estuary of the Tamsui River in northern Taiwan shows that it used to be an intertidal zone that was home to fish, clams, shrimps and other shellfish, upon which fishermen relied heavily in the 1990s.

Fishermen harvest clams and other shellfish in the estuary of the Tamsui River in northern Taiwan in this photo taken by Ke Chin-yuan in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Ke Chin-yuan)

The wetland, which used to be an intertidal zone in the estuary of the Tamsui River in the 1990s, had disappeared by the time Ke Chin-yuan revisited the place in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Ke Chin-yuan)

The estuary of the Tamsui River is now characteristic of an area suffering from sediment deposits. (2017 photo courtesy of Ke Chin-yuan)

Ke likened the images captured through his lens of fishermen bending to harvest clams and other shellfish against the backdrop of high-rise buildings, as a Taiwanese version of "The Gleaners," the iconic oil painting by French artist Jean Francois Millet painted in the mid-19th century.

Nature-capturing artist

"I wanted to become an artist, often packing up my camera gear and rushing to the mountains upon learning of a looming typhoon or a cold front just to catch the most splendid cloud or snow views," Ke said.

The more photos he took that encapsulate the harm being done to the environment, the more frequently he asked himself how to put his skills toward a bigger cause rather than just fulfilling his own goals.

"Whenever an environmental problem occurs, it is always the disadvantaged in rural areas who are the first to be adversely affected, but their voices are rarely heard," Ke said.

The motivation -- giving a voice to the voiceless -- behind Ke's passion has also driven him to record environmental damage across national boundaries.

His documentary "Song of the Forest," about Taiwan's role in deforestation in Southeast Asia, is one of these works. Speaking of the issue, Ke said he wished to encourage viewers to think about the loss of the traditional land of indigenous people in those countries before they make a decision to purchase hardwood furniture.

Roles of government and mega-corporations

Over the course of his career, Ke said that a much higher level of environmental awareness among the Taiwanese public has been notably observed, with various development plans scrapped as a result of public protest.

"How far away are we from having a country with a civil society strong enough to press the government and mega-corporations not to place environmental concerns below economic growth? This is the question I have been thinking about," Ke said. "We need to empower civil society."

With that, Ke and the Acropolis, his publisher, plan to hold a series of environmental reporting workshops throughout this year to cultivate more guardians of the planet. "I remain optimistic about the future," Ke said. "At the end of the day, people will realize that wealth is nothing without health."

To get a glimpse of Ke's photos, readers are welcome to visit his flickr site: