Photographer Nathan Gibson has a beautifully nuanced documentarian with an eye for a brilliant story; as exemplified in a gorgeous recent series entitled Wavering Shadows.
Gibson, who is also a filmmaker, multimedia producer, and educator, is based in Beijing, China, and specialises in socially focused documentary and visual journalism projects. “My work is largely concerned with identity and belonging in a contemporary setting,” he says, “with more specific projects focusing on masculinity, ethnicity, language, modernisation, and community.”
Wavering Shadows is an exploration of the Oroqen, one of the smallest of the 56 ethnic groups recognised by the modern Chinese state, with a population of around 8,000. Based mostly in the northern regions of Inner Mongolia and the Heilongjiang Province, the Oroqen were once “nomadic hunter-gatherers,” Gibson explains, whose ancestors had migrated down the Amur River (or Heilongjiang, or “Black Dragon River” in Chinese) from Siberia. Things radically shifted for the community in 1953 when the Communist government moved the community from its “diju,” mobile teepee-like structures, to state-constructed villages with mud-brick houses.
That huge displacement meant rapid modernisation for the community, and today, barely any Oroqen under 40 are fluent in their indigenous language. “As it’s solely oral with no written form, its potential for continued existence is precarious,” says Gibson. “It is predicted that the Oroqen tongue will disappear within decades.” Life for today’s Oroqen – modern approaches agriculture, university education, and increased integration into mainstream Chinese society - soon became the norm rather than their historic clan life.
“Of course languages disappear all the time all over the world and those, like Oroqen, which have no written form are particularly vulnerable,” says Gibson. “The thought of that was just incredible to me. Language, after all, isn't just about the vocabulary and grammar that we use but about the thought processes behind it, and the idea that a whole way of thinking about and discussing the world might disappear was just astounding.”
Along with his friend Hilary Pan, Gibson began making links with community leaders via a foundation and got on a train to try and meet as many people as possible, trying to understand what the loss of language might mean and how people might be trying to resist it, or conversely, embrace change.
“I think that often when photographers go out to make images of indigenous communities they place them in a romanticised version of a past that didn't really exist, which is something we made it clear to ourselves we weren't going to do,” Gibson says. “A number of the older generation we met spoke little Chinese and could remember living in the forests, but the younger generation are modern people who go to university in big cities, study to be engineers or follow their parents into local government, and - despite being aware and often proud of their ethnic heritage - are largely integrated into mainstream Chinese society.
“The Oroqen's history is reflective of the vast changes that have happened across China over the last few decades, as the country has moved from a largely agrarian nation to an industrial powerhouse drawing in numerous ethnic groupings to present an image of a diverse and harmonious society. I think it best to leave it to the people we met to decide whether the changes affecting their community mean a loss of culture. I'm grateful for the time they gave us and hope the pictures provide a realistic depiction of what we found.”