An old tree in the middle of a modern city, it was replanted for a lot of money. In China's metropolises, this happens every day. Photographer Yan Wang Preston talks to Spiegel Online about her photo project and the business with trees. 


SPIEGEL ONLINE: You take pictures of transplanted trees in China. You’ve even given one of them a name: Frank. What’s so special about that one?

Yan Wang Preston: Frank is the only tree I photographed before it was dug up and transported. I just happened to be in the village where it had grown to full size, before it was destroyed. I photographed it here and there, just as I would a person. Normally, you don’t do that with trees. I felt a kind of personal connection to Frank. I saw it and somehow sensed that was the name. Otherwise, I spent most of the time taking pictures of forested areas. They always contained a lot of trees. But Frank was always just Frank. Unfortunately, it did not survive in its new location in front of a hotel. Only the red soil was still there after two years. It’s not a beautiful picture, but it’s important to me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you come up with the idea of studying trees this way?

Preston: The first time I noticed these rare trees was in 2010, when I was in China for another project. There were old trees, their branches had been cut back; they stood in plastic bags on brand-new public squares. I took a few photos, but didn’t spend any more time on it. On my next visit, I noticed even more trees like this. The theme appealed to me, emotionally. The trees looked so distressed! So I began working on a long-term project and made several visits to the locations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What happened to the trees?

Preston: Some of them look half-dead, but are still standing there. In other places, the trees have already disappeared. Entire regions had been rebuilt again, and sometimes I couldn’t even find my original location again. But there are also trees that developed very well. They grew, and a real forest was made. That was almost scary! Seven years before, there had only been a field and some transplanted trees.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So some of it was at least partially successful?

Preston: Yes, the story is more complicated than I thought at first. I took the majority of the photos in Chongqing. It’s a growing city of millions, which decided on its own to become a green city. During my initial visits I often saw posters advertising five guidelines. Right at the top: we want to be a tree city! And, in fact, the city did change over the course of my project. It looks much friendlier than before. But the city planted the forests using old trees, because it was too impatient to wait for young trees to grow. It remains a business.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does the tree business work?

Preston: Many of the trees come from villages that have been destroyed because new cities or industries were built there. That happens in China on a daily basis, practically. For example, around thirty new hydroelectric facilities were built, and all of the villages nearby were flooded for that. These villages are often old, and so are the trees. That’s one of the main sources of transplanted trees in big cities.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: The trees seem to have almost human qualities in your eyes.

Preston: Yes; at the start I just wanted to do portraits of the trees, as if they were living sculptures. It wasn’t until later that I began including the urban architecture and people. Trees have a character of their own; they’re mysterious creatures. Different cultures have different ways of dealing with trees symbolically. But trees are associated with the cycle of life everywhere.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are also some photos without any trees at all. What do you want to show with those?

Preston: The longer I worked on the trees, the more I thought about the color green, and how it represents being environmentally friendly. Green is better! But I also find that this concept is often abused. The main thing is that a tree, even if it’s made of plastic, can make you think. And in some places in China, it’s gone so far that steep mountainsides, where nothing grows, are covered in green plastic tarps. Just so that they look green from far away. When I happened to see that, I had to capture that on film.


An Interview by Kathrin Fromm. You can read the entire interview in Spiegel Online.. In this context we'd like to thank Allison Moseley for the translation.

Yan Wang Preston received the Syngenta Photography Award for her project "Forest"

Veröffentlicht am: 20.05.2023