Global China Pulse
Ruptured Worlds: a Photo Essay on the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, Cambodia
PHOTOS BY THOMAS CRISTOFOLETTI
Infrastructure is often introduced using basic facts. For instance, the Lower Sesan 2 Dam is Cambodia’s largest dam, located on the Sesan River, which is a major tributary of the Mekong. Other key pieces of information are that the project was approved in 2012, became operational in 2018, and has since directly displaced some 5,000 local villagers from their homelands and flooded more than 30,000 hectares. The 400-megawatt facility is now owned by a Chinese, Cambodian, and Vietnamese joint venture and, although plans for the project long pre-date the existence of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is now labelled a BRI project (see Mahanty’s profile of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam in the People’s Map of Global China).
Yet, the numbers we use to describe a dam’s impact—hectares under water, number of people displaced, tonnes of fish lost—are often inadequate or ‘flat’ (Sousanis 2015). Numbers cannot convey the enormity and complexity of transformation that is wrought by megaprojects such as the Lower Sesan 2 Dam. Nor can they convey how contestation continues over this dam, in relation to indigenous resettlement, livelihoods, resources, human rights violations, and cumulative environmental impacts (HRW 2021). Take, for instance, the terrifying failure of the Tonle Sap flood pulse in recent years (Fawthrop 2020). This floodplain lake is Asia’s largest freshwater fishery, and it depends on monsoonal inflows from rivers like the Sesan and Mekong. The Lower Sesan 2 Dam has contributed to this emerging crisis.
So, if ‘the numbers’ are insufficient, how can we understand Cambodia’s Lower Sesan 2 Dam and the magnitude of its impacts? As Emily Raboteau suggests (2021), in discussing the climate crisis, perhaps art can provide a soft pathway into this dark subject.
Art does provide a powerful medium for interpreting what is confronting or unfathomable. It can therefore apply to the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, which showcases how mega-infrastructure projects can send ripple effects across time and space, often in ways that are beyond ordinary human perception. Given this, mega-infrastructure projects may be classified as what Timothy Morton (2013) termed ‘hyperobjects’—entities, like climate change or plastic pollution, which cannot easily be grasped because of their vast spatial and temporal dimensions. This notion resonates with our research on ‘rupture’ (Mahanty and Milne 2020), which shows how dams can create ‘open moments’ (Lund 2016) when society and nature are reworked in unpredictable ways. Traditional impact studies cannot capture the gravity of such processes.
Nick Sousanis’ (2015) work on ‘unflattening’ is helpful here: he proposes the use of multiple visual viewpoints to produce new forms of knowledge. Unflattening is therefore a kind of visual reasoning, which can powerfully counteract overly narrow or bounded viewpoints. Sousanis argues that this approach can give rise to new modes of understanding, beyond what we normally perceive—a potentially vital tool for apprehending hyperobjects or ruptures.
The work of photographer Thomas Cristofoletti conveys the power of ‘unflattening’ in the case of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam and its devastating impacts. Cristofoletti initially went to the dam site in 2015 to document indigenous resistance to the project. Since then, his multiple visits have produced remarkable images of human life and landscapes after the dam’s construction, as depicted in this photo essay.
The images play with our perceptions of space and time. For example, using drones, Cristofoletti captures expansive aerial views of the dam site that take us far beyond what we might see from the ground. Juxtaposed with this are intimate portraits of people’s daily lives around the dam, which convey the human dimensions of this tragedy. For these closer shots, Cristofoletti insists on using a 35-millimetre lens. ‘It’s like the human eye, there is no zoom, it forces you to get up close to people,’ he says.
The combination of granular detail, expansive scale, and temporal range in this photo essay provides a visual archaeology of the infrastructure and its effects. While there is a temptation to see beauty in the vast expanses of water and in the skeletal remains of dead forests, Cristofoletti’s intention is clear. This work is about bearing witness or drawing attention to the very real grassroots struggles and human–ecological tragedies that lie beneath sweeping narratives about infrastructure as progress and development.