Fergus Coyle

IT'S NICE THAT INTERVIEW

Firstly can you detail what your initial connection to Wuhan was and why you decided to visit?

My Brother has lived and worked in Wuhan for the past 8 years. In late 2017, he married his long term partner and I flew out to attend the wedding. I stayed on for a further four weeks to get to know my new extended family and the city in which my brother has chosen to settle.

What was it about the place that made you want to photograph it?

Initially I was excited by Wuhan’s location, as it is at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers. I remember seeing Nadav Kander’s eerie, industrial depiction of the Yangtze in Portfolio Magazine with small figures dwarfed by the construction of giant bridges. Similarly, Zhang Kechun’s stunning series Yellow River became a big inspiration at the time. 

I’d regularly catch the ferry from Wuchang District in the South to Hankou Bund, on the Northern bank of the Yangtze. Groups of swimmers bathed in the silty waters near the terminal as giant cargo ships passed by. A publicity stunt in 1966, saw Chairman Mao famously join 5000 swimmers in Wuhan’s annual cross Yangtze competition and the tradition seems to have stuck.

Hankou Bund is a 4km long stretch of curated park that runs parallel to the Yangtze. Locals congregate for group exercises, chess, dancing or to pose for photographs in front of the impressive skyline, dominated by the Greenland Centre - Chinas tallest building and 4th in the world. One of my favourite activities to observe was the bird kite flyers who skilfully manoeuvre their Eagle shaped kites close to the water, as if they were hunting for fish before circling upwards on a thermal.

Further up the Yangtze and on the outskirts of Wuhan lies Tianxingxiang Island. It consists mostly of farmland apart from a giant sandbar on its west bank that makes for perfect 4x4 driving, and a shipwreck that is used for wedding photoshoots. There’s a massive trend for elaborate pre-wedding photos in China and however remote an area of the city you visit, you’re likely to be met by a troupe of photographers, stylists, assistants and the odd smoke machine for ultimate effect!

Can you describe what it was like in comparison to the Wuhan we’ve seen in the news most recently?

Wuhan is a bustling city with a population greater than London. Every corner you turn there’s a hive of activity. Its residents are very sociable. and there’s a strong culture for eating out, whether it’s in a restaurant or street food at one of the many night markets. Its roads are busy with cars, motorbikes and endless yellow hire bikes that end up in huge piles at their drop-off points. There are major tourist attractions such as Yellow Crane Tower or East Lake - a series of lakeside parks connected by many walkways which attracts over a million visitors per year. It also has one of Chinas largest student populations, with 20 different universities and many foreign students. It was saddening to see the images of Wuhan as it went into lockdown. I regularly spoke to my brother who was holed up in his apartment, only leaving to collect food deliveries. They are just beginning to leave their apartment complex now, which is good timing as my sister in law is due to give birth in May. 

There is an amazing warmth to the photographs you’ve taken, was this something you were trying to convey about Wuhan?

Like many photographers, I’m not a great fan of blue skies and often prefer the morning or evening light. Wuhan regularly experiences high levels of pollution, with a thick smog often acting as a giant diffuser for the sun. The payoff is a warm balanced tone that stays consistent on separate days. The images are also shot on medium format film and slightly overexposed in camera to add to the effect. Although this was my chosen aesthetic, I wouldn’t suggest that Wuhan is that highly polluted every day. Like many cities around the world, residents are currently enjoying the clean air as pollution levels dramatically decline. 

As things begin to seemingly return normal in Wuhan do you hope to go back?

Yes, absolutely! Most importantly I have a nephew on the way that I’d like to meet so look forward to returning again soon. So far, this project has just scratched the surface of life in Wuhan and there are many stories I would like to develop upon too.

What do you hope viewers take away from your photographs?

Before Covid19, Wuhan was relatively unknown to the west. It’s sad to think that it could forever be known as the source of a virus turned pandemic.

Through these photographs, I hope viewers can take a moment to have an unbiased look at Wuhan, away from the mainstream media. To get a sense of the cities character and a brief insight into the daily lives of its inhabitants.