“The Cradle of the Dust Storms”

Nothing depicts the state of an environment as directly as a photograph. Through a series of carefully chosen images, environmental activist Ding Pingjun’s The Cradle of the Dust Storms: Photographs of the People of Alashan and Their Surroundings tells the story of the Alashan grasslands – where China’s dust storms originate – and the people who live there.


The images are not the author’s own. They were taken by more than twenty herders and farmers whose families have lived on the Alashan grasslands of Inner Mongolia for generations. Although the amateurs’ pictures may suffer — in the eye of a professional photographer — from artistic failings, they are entirely authentic. Each image is accompanied by a quote from the herder who captured it and, again, although the language may not be literary, it is moving in its simplicity.  


One herder  photographed a poplar forest. “This forest is a kilometre from my home,” he writes. “There’s not enough water, and the small trees are starting to wither and yellow. If we have another dry year, they’ll die off. We hope the government will be able to solve the water problem … That’s the only way to save the trees and the pastures.”  


Another talks about a river flowing towards a lake and about current irrigation methods: “I don’t think we should concrete the waterways. Once you do that, the trees and pastures they flow through don’t get any water.” A third uses a picture of an emaciated camel walking through the desert to call for more attention to the sustained drought facing the Hei River.  


The book makes its readers feel they are among the herders, hearing the same story echoed again and again, while the images bring those tales to life.  


Compared with many other abstruse environmental tomes, this book is certainly accessible – but is pricey by mainland Chinese standards. But this is perhaps its only fault. Photographic volumes are more expensive to produce, of course. Maybe the Ford Foundation  – which provided funding for the project — could find a way to reduce the costs and bring this valuable book to a wider audience. After all, dissemination is an important feature of the environmental movement. 

Cradle of the Dust Storms: Photographs of the People of Alashan and Their Surroundings
Ding Pingjun
China Academic Press, 2007
— By Li Siqi