‘We see the construction of skyscrapers and crowded shopping malls and restaurants, but we seldom see the tons of rubbish around Beijing.’

b.1977, Anqiu, Shandong

For Wang Jiuliang, photography is not so much art as activism. His pictures confront viewers with the ugly side of China’s economic boom: farmland blighted by chemicals, streets strewn with rubbish, vast piles of rotting garbage. For his monumental documentary series Beijing Besieged by Waste (2008-10), he spent almost three years touring 450 rubbish dumps and landfill sites that encircled the Chinese capital (many have since been shut down as a result of his efforts). The few dumps regulated by the city government must take steps to limit seepage and pollution. But most dumps are illegal, often set up in collusion with local residents—about 100,000 people in all—who make a living picking through the waste for cloth, metal, timber, and plastic to sell or recycle. Though this process clears away about two-thirds of the dumped waste, what’s left pollutes air, earth and water, and exudes such vile odours that residents are sometimes forced to seal themselves indoors. To Wang Jiuliang, the “real criminal” is not the illegal dumpers but “consumerism”. “I’m not an extreme environmentalist,” he says. “I just believe that sometimes we must control our desire to consume if we want to reduce our trash.”

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