Compasses, Cameras, Ladies: Case Studies of Women Photographers and Explorers

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


In 1896, the English explorer, writer and photographer Isabella Lucy Bird (b.1831) set sail from Shanghai to explore China along the Yangtze River. The interior of China had recently been opened up to foreigners, forced by the invading western imperial powers and their advanced weaponry. Taking advantage of this, Bird sailed westward until she navigated through the treacherous Three Gorges. From there she left the ‘beaten track’ and went north, reaching Chengdu before turning west towards Tibet. At the Tibetan border she was finally turned away. She then sailed on the Min River, rejoining the Yangtze at Yibin before returning to Shanghai. Bird was one of the first independent (women) travellers and photographers operating in China and its western borderland with Tibet. In 1898, Bird published her book ‘The Yangtze Valley and Beyond’, in which she documented and reflected on her experiences in China, and unusually for the time, with much sympathy towards the country. From among the 116 photographs in Bird’s book, one image, of the historical Zhangfei Temple, which she reached just after the 1897 Chinese New Year, is of particular relevance for the purposes of this paper.

In 2014, the Chinese-born, British photographer Yan Wang Preston (b. 1976) set off for the last road trip for her Mother River project, for which she was photographing the entire Yangtze River at precise 100km intervals since 2010. She was 5-months pregnant and had already covered most of the river, including the challenging terrains on the Tibetan Plateau at the river source. On the 23rd May she reached the same Zhangfei Temple visited by Bird over a century ago. An additional historical resonance is provided by the fact that Preston photographed the Temple with a large-format film camera, not dissimilar to the one used by Bird. Finally by the 1st June she reached and photographed the last pre-determined photo location for her project. Preston’s photobook ‘Mother River’, published in 2018 by Hatje Cantz, contains 64 photographs documenting the landscapes and lives along the Yangtze River across the entire width of China, and is the most systematic photographic record along the Yangtze produced by one person since the first photograph in China was produced in 1842.

This paper presents Preston’s Mother River project and contextualises it within the field of women photographers who have travelled to and explored areas beyond the reach of many but the most determined adventurers. While acknowledging the often contested social, cultural and political backgrounds of such photographers, the paper attempts to downplay issues normally associated with gender and politics. Instead, the paper suggests that women are just as capable as men in the field of adventurous travelling before asking the ultimate question: why are there so few women photographers in this field?
Period1 Dec 2019
Event titleFast Forward: How Do Women Work?
Event typeConference
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational