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Voices From South of the Clouds: Photovoices in NW Yunnan Province


Photo by: He Yunying ©
Northwest Yunnan: One of the world's great biodiversity hotspots is home to:
  • 30 endangered mammals, including the golden snub-nosed monkey, lesser panda, and snow leopard

  • 7,000 endemic plant species, 700 flowering plants and 165 species of rhododendron / azalea as well as primula, gentians, anemones, clematis, and lilies

  • 400 bird species that live within or migrate through the area

  • 40% of Chinese and 75% of Tibetan medicinal herbs
Click on the map above for a larger view.

In southwestern China lies the province of Yunnan -- which means "south of the clouds". The northwestern corner of Yunnan is a landscape of towering mountains, deep river canyons and sacred sites and is also home to 15 of Yunnan's 24 officially recognized ethnic minorities, who have lived here for many generations and who continue to practice many traditions lost elsewhere.


To protect this unique area, the Chinese government and The Nature Conservancy joined together in Yunnan Great Rivers Project, a collaborative effort to preserve biological and cultural diversity in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province. Environmental conservation, including establishing protected areas and promoting alternative energy, are some of the strategies to safeguard Yunnan's rich diversity.


The Photovoices project was initiated to engage the public in the Yunnan Great Rivers Project. Many villagers live in remote mountain regions, speak only local languages and cannot read or write; most had never held a camera in their hands before participating in the project. Photovoices enabled them to use photographs and their own words, written down by others, to communicate their knowledge, values, and concerns to those making plans for the future and to a global audience through a year-long exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


“We have technical and scientific knowledge to address conservation questions but we want to pay attention to the villagers’ views. They have firsthand knowledge. They know their own problems. Through Photovoices, we can achieve a better understanding of villagers’ views of what they want, what they hope the Great Rivers project will be about.”

~Liu Dachang, PhD Conservation Scientist
The Nature Conservancy Yunnan Great Rivers Project

More than 200 people from dozens of villages have participated, using simple, inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras. Local exhibits of the photographers' work were held in their villages and they were given copies of all their photographs which they often keep in a place of honor in their homes. Together they have produced over 50,000 images with 15,000 stories to accompany them about the natural environment, long-standing customs and beliefs, as well as more recent changes to their lives.


The Nature Conservancy in China has created a data base of all of the photographs and stories provides an extensive visual record of the environments of Yunnan and village life. Most importantly, the photographs provide information not available from any other source to government, policy makers and others making plans for the future.

The First Photovoices Project: Ann McBride Norton's Journal
Photo by: Ahnanzhu: 36-year-old Tibetan man; Yubeng Village ©

We huddled around a wood fire at twilight in the traditional courtyard, the vast expanse, of the 6700 holy mountain of Melixueshan towering overhead, its glacial surface still visible in the fading light. We have traveled by plane, bumped for a day over narrow, rough roads and trekked uphill for 6 hours to reach this tiny Tibetan hamlet in China's northwest Yunnan Province.

I came to talk with local villagers about a project called Photovoices, to gauge their interest in helping conservation efforts by taking photographs of their traditional culture, their daily lives and the stunning and ecologically rich world around them. The language difficulties seemed to frustrate my best efforts. As I finished and sat quietly I wondered if the translation from English to Chinese to Tibetan at the end made any sense at all. Then an old man with his hat pulled low on his head spoke up: "I understand. We can't read or write but these photographs can speak for us."

In the years since I wrote those words, Photovoices photographers from Yunnan China and other special places in the world have brought us into their lives and honored us by sharing their cultures and religion, their natural surroundings, the joy, hardships and rhythm of their daily lives. Perhaps most important, this understanding comes not from the lens of a photojournalist but through the eyes of the people themselves.

~Ann McBride Norton, Founder and Director Photovoices International