Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 18 News List

A photographer in love with his mother

Chi Po-lin gets a birds-eye view for a fresh perspective on Taiwan's environment and Mother Earth

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

The Agongdian River in Kaohsiung County is discolored not from sediment but from industrial and agricultural waste upstream.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE EARTH MAGAZINE

Earth Day is coming and activities and events here and abroad are planned to mark the occasion and spread a mantra: Love your mother.

Among Taiwanese, few better understand the consequences of wanton disregard for the environment better than Chi Po-lin (齊柏林), a photographer who has spent over 700 hours in a helicopter snapping more than 60,000 photos of Taiwan and its outlying islands.

Many of Chi's photos are on display now through the end of June at an extraordinary exhibition outside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall titled Our Land Our Story.

"In the time I've spent flying over Taiwan, I've become something of an environmentalist," Chi said.

While he holds no official position with any environmental groups or agencies, Chi's photographs serve as a powerful public record of what little has been done to protect Taiwan's coastal flatlands and rivers.

The photos are a study in contrasts. As Chi explains, "The only unpolluted parts of Taiwan are in the mountains above 3,000m and sections of the southeast coast." As a result, photos at the Memorial Hall exhibit juxtapose images of rivers turned an industrial orange from pollutants, with images of pristine mountain peaks white-capped with snow and standing starkly against blue skies.

"When you take off from Kaohsiung or Taichung you see nothing but the iron-shed style of Taiwanese architecture. All the rooftops are capped with red corrugated sheet metal," Chi said.

"But when you fly inland, you immediately begin to see farmlands and factories. They're outlined by rivers that turn shades of orange and green the closer they get to the ocean. Only in the mountains -- and only in the highest mountains -- do you see that Taiwan has tremendous natural beauty."

The photos are stunning for their artlessness. These are not snapshots of picturesque sunsets or postcards mountain vistas. Rather than creativity, Chi has sought clarity. He has eschewed applying filters to his lens and has instead waited for clear, cloudless days.

Oftentimes the photos aren't what they seem. A shot of the Agongdian Reservoir in Kaohsiung County looks pleasant enough, with egrets flying above green marshlands. In fact, the reservoir is suffering from eutrophication.

Agricultural operations and pig farms upstream have given the reservoir a high content of nitrates and phosphates that proliferate the growth of algae, which in turn exhausts the supply of dissolved oxygen in the water and strangles other life forms.

Another shot of the Agongdian River shows a ribbon of orange water flowing through rice patties and fish farms. Though the water looks colored by clay sediment, it is in fact the result of waste from riverside factories and fish farms.

"Taiwanese people don't put enough effort into looking after their culture and history," Chi said.

And often it is culture and history that conspire against the environment.

Among the many shots of rooftops of homes is one of a traditional cemetery in the middle of a Pingtung County farm field. From the accompanying caption you learn that 126,000 people die in Taiwan each year.

If each of them were buried in the traditional method, Taiwan would each year lose 400 hectares of usable land, an area about the size of Taipei County's Yunghe City. On an island already squeezed for space, such use of land becomes an important issue.

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