The first time I shot this tree was in March 2013, while I was working on a project to photograph the entire length of the Yangtze river at 100km intervals. I stopped in at a tiny village called Xialiu in Yunnan Province. The first thing I noticed was this beautiful tree. Locals said it was probably more than 300 years old, as old as the village. It was a hot, sunny place, so people really needed its leafy branches to rest under.
The village had gorgeous big courtyards full of lush plants and decorated walls. The houses were white with black-tiled roofs and flying eaves. There were several other ancient trees, but half of the village had been demolished. A dam on the Yangtze was being built nearby, so Xialiu would soon be flooded. I managed to take a couple of pictures, but I was exhausted. I had spent all my money and even been bitten by a dog.
Three months later, I returned to the village and it was as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped. I was shocked – everything was gone, flattened. My big question was about the tree: what had happened to it?
I stayed on for a few days and found some villagers who had been moved to higher ground. They told me all the old trees had been sold for the equivalent of about £10,000, and that each family in the village had been given a share. I asked about the biggest tree and they told me it had been sold on, and was now in Binchuan City, about two hours’ drive away.
In Binchuan, the tree was already famous. A policewoman told me it had been bought by a new five-star hotel. The place wasn’t even built: apart from the tree, there was just an empty construction site. It was a heartbreaking scene. I’d seen the tree in its home, covered with leaves as villagers lived their lives around it. Now it was like a person with their arms, fingers and hair all chopped off.
I don’t think they’d been able to dig a hole big enough, because the tree was raised above ground. A security guard told me they’d broken two cranes trying to move it. Even with all its leaves and smaller branches removed, it still weighed 70 tonnes. Apparently, the new owner paid £25,000 for this tree – and someone else has since offered £70,000, but the owner refused to sell.
The great thing about shooting with large format is the amount of detail. You can see that the tree is covered in needles and nutrition bags, like the drips you get in hospitals. I asked the guard if the tree would survive, and he was confident. When I left Binchuan I saw dug-up trees lining the road and waiting to be sold. In other villages, people told me dealers were trying to buy their old trees.
I first photographed transplanted trees in 2011, but this is the only one I saw before it was uprooted. I shoot them as if they’re sculptures, isolated, with a sense of confrontation. The transplantation of trees in China is a serious industry. Enormous numbers are uprooted and sent great distances to new cities and redevelopments. Some developers don’t even care if the new climate is suitable. I’ve seen trees that were taken from Vietnam planted in places far too cold for them. They have to wrap them in giant plastic bags.
Yan Wang Preston’s CV
Born: Henan Province, China, 1976.
Studied: Completing a PhD in photography at Plymouth university.
Influences: Joel Sternfeld, Jem Southam.
High point: “Photographing the mouth of the Yangtze river.”
Low point: “Discovering that I loaded my film back to front for part of the Yangtze project.”
Top tip: “If in doubt, shoot.”
Yan Wang Preston is the winner of the Syngenta award 2016/17. An exhibition of the entrants is on show at Somerset House, London, to 28 March.