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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Yan Jiacheng

Joana Alarcão

In this interview, Yan Jiacheng shares insights into his artistic journey, the complexities of documenting rural China, and the impact of accolades like the 2023 RPS Documentary Photography Award. Discover the profound role of visual storytelling in capturing societal events and explore his perspective on the broader significance of being an artist.

10 January 2024

Yan Jiacheng currently resides in Guangzhou, China. He graduated from the Chinese Department of Jinan University in 2016.
He has been selected for the 2023 RPS Documentary Photography Award and the 2023 Changing Asia Photography Contest, and his work has been shortlisted for the 2023 Korea DongGang International Photography Festival, Israel PHOTO IS: RAEL International Photography Festival, and Rome Art Week, among many other international art festivals.
His works have been featured in the collaborative publication "OF COVID" by KGP BOOKS and HUBLE Art Foundation, exhibited in various countries including the United States, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Yan Jiacheng has been covered by magazines and media outlets such as "People," "Guyu," "Voicer," and "Nylon." His work has been published on platforms like "Chinese Photography," "New Weekly," "F-Stop," and "Kanke," and he has also participated as a speaker in "Yixi."

Can you elaborate on your artistic journey and how it led you to become the artist that you are today?

Before engaging in artistic creation, I was an employee of a company, doing work I disliked every day. The work pattern at that time was extremely draining, leaving me breathless. In 2017, after returning to China from a trip to Vietnam, I was waiting for a bus at the station. While waiting, I wandered around taking photos with my camera. It was almost from that moment that I felt I could take photos. Thus, I embarked on the path of artistic creation.

As someone deeply engaged with the documentation of a traditional practice in the face of environmental concerns, how do you see the intersection of tradition and modernity in rural areas of China? How does this dynamic shape your photographic storytelling?

This is an intriguing question and an artistic proposition. Indeed, there is a significant rift between environmental protection and traditional customs, and even developed and developing countries are not on the same page when it comes to addressing environmental issues. Therefore, I often feel that what art creation or photography needs to do most is to document — document the changes of the times, the attitudes of different countries towards environmental protection, record people's understanding of the issue within their respective contexts, and through documentation, promote reflection on real-world issues and the formulation and implementation of policies.

Burning Fields by Yan Jiacheng. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng

The burning of straw and crop residues in rural China has been a longstanding tradition with both practical and controversial aspects. How did you become interested in documenting this practice, and what inspired you to explore its complexities through your photography?

Regarding this question, I will quote the explanation of my work here:

The name "Burning Prairie" for my work is inspired by a novel of the same name by my favorite author, Juan Rulfo. After graduating from college, I only returned to my hometown during the Spring Festival, leading me to capture many winter scenes there, notably of burning straw. A few years ago, when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer, I returned home at the end of a summer and discovered a different aspect of my hometown. These scenes, so unlike those of winter and my memories, compelled me to photograph them too. I was struck by the stark contrast: the barren, desolate land, which lay burning in the winter, burst forth with life in spring and summer. This revelation mirrored the unchanging cycle of the land, which has nourished humanity since the dawn of agriculture.

A year after my grandfather's passing, when I returned home again, I realized that humans, too, are like this land—burning and regrowing in a continuous cycle of life and rejuvenation.

Your documentation of the burning of straw occurs every winter. Could you talk about the changes or developments you've observed over time in this practice, and how has it influenced your perspective on the environmental and cultural aspects involved?

Because in winter the land cannot be cultivated, dealing with straw is obviously very energy and time-consuming, which is difficult for farmers. Therefore, people choose to burn it directly in the fields. The benefit is that the ashes from the burning become fertilizer for the soil, making the crops grow better the following year. However, the problem is that it causes air pollution, an issue not only in China but also in many agricultural countries around the world. 

Every year, the government promotes not burning straw, but the effect is minimal. However, in recent years, there seems to be increasing news about straw being reused. I believe technological progress will gradually solve this problem. Relying solely on farmers to understand that this behavior causes air pollution is almost impossible.

Burning Fields by Yan Jiacheng. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng

Being selected for the 2023 RPS Documentary Photography Award and other prestigious contests is a significant accomplishment. How has this recognition impacted your approach to your work and the themes you choose to explore?

I am very happy to have been selected for some awards and photography festivals, and I am honored to have the opportunity to show my work to more people around the world. This kind of recognition motivates me to create more work.

You've been a speaker at "Yixi." Could you share some insights into the topics you discuss during speaking engagements and how your experiences as a photographer inform these discussions?

YiXi, similar to TED Talks, is the largest personal author speaking program in China, and I am honored to have been invited. At YiXi, I talked about my creative experiences and many of my works, which received quite a positive response and introduced me to a broader audience. 

Sharing one's creative journey and work on a popular program actually requires the works to be easily understood. They need to be approached from a more everyday and relatable perspective, which is also the angle I prefer when creating my works.

Your works have been exhibited in various countries and covered by international media. How do you feel your photography contributes to cross-cultural conversations, and what messages or narratives do you aim to convey to a global audience?

Recording the stories of Chinese people in China, my primary audience is naturally Chinese. However, in the post-globalization era, I believe it's important for people from different places or countries to understand and empathize with each other. This is an aspect that artistic creation should achieve. 

Therefore, my aim is not only to tell a Chinese story from the perspective of a Chinese person but also to narrate a story about humanity itself.

What role do you see visual storytelling playing in documenting significant societal events?

I believe visual documentation will become increasingly important and necessary both today and in the future. Before photography, our understanding of the past relied only on text and imagination, which obviously involved significant errors. The advent of photography and video has made it easier to understand things. If we liken an event to a person, then images are its eyes, an indispensable part.

Burning Fields by Yan Jiacheng. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng

How do you personally define the role and significance of being an artist in the broader context of creativity, expression, and societal impact?

In China, it is still difficult to make a living from artistic creation, so many people, including myself, are doing it part-time. I create because it brings me a lot of happiness and a sense of self-worth.

From an artist's perspective, I believe art is not just a form of entertainment. Ever since people sprayed those famous handprints in the caves of Argentina, art has proven to be necessary in any environment. It has accompanied history throughout its course.

What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?

I hope everyone can take a look at my works on my website :) (

Cover Image

Burning Fields by Yan Jiacheng. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng

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