That first morning was foggy and the view outside my room was of a small, brown river lined with bare trees. The long flight had left my ears clogged and the world existed in a muted state that made the transition from my home to this new place all the more surreal. I had flown from Portland, Oregon to Zhengzhou, China in hopes of working on a story about river pollution in a rural part of eastern China. In the weeks before, the e-mails I sent to the Chinese environmental activist were first translated using an online translator of dubious quality, then sent off with hopes that some part of the essential requests and questions would remain clear. It was with this profound uncertainty that I bought the plane ticket and packed for my time there.The trip was not without its issues. The translator that had been set up for me was a Party official and barely spoke English. He seemed more interested in what my intent was than actually helping me on the story. After a few frantic calls and some negotiation over day rates, I had another translator fly out from Beijing.
The six days of shooting went quickly, as we moved from village to village, skirting local Party officials and meeting those affected in these "cancer villages" where large numbers of people were suffering the effects of drinking the polluted water on a daily basis.
A few days in, my translator and I had a surreal lunch at the Lianhua MSG Group, one of the largest polluters in the region, responsible for the suffering of thousands of people. We sat in a hotel ballroom with the company's "Propaganda Department" (that's a direct translation), drank hard liquor and were served an elaborate meal. The officials talked candidly about the pollution, its effect on the villages and the thousands of dollars they spent on a water treatment plant that sat unused on the factory grounds.
When I returned home, I edited the photos, sent them to my agency and received little response. For two years the photos sat there, not being seen by anyone except visitors to my web site. They were first published in a book about water issues worldwide. Then, in August of 2007, I received a note from David Elliot Cohen about a new project he was working on that would pair photo essays on important issues in the world with writing by experts in the field. Twelve months later, I'm holding the book with my photos accompanied by a wonderful essay by Elizabeth Economy (author of The River Runs Black). I'm humbled by the good company I'm in, with photo essays by James Nachtwey, Marcus Bleasdale, Sebastiao Salgado and many others, and original writing by people like Samantha Power and Jeffrey Sachs.
More information about the book can be seen here: http://whatmattersonline.com/ In the coming weeks, some of the work will be published in newspapers and magazines, and an interview I just completed will be shown on CNN's Planet in Peril web site.