The controversial Three Gorges Dam, arguably the largest construction project in modern history, is slowly yet surely becoming a reality. First approved in 1992 and slated to take 17 years to complete, the project is massive in both size and effect: the dam will stretch two kilometers across the Yangtze River and measure 185 meters high, creating a reservoir that will reach back 600 kilometers. By 2009, 13 major cities, and 1500 towns and villages, will have been submerged, forcing the resettlement of 1.3 million people.

In June 2003, the first phase of the Three Gorges Dam construction project was completed. The sluice gates were closed, allowing the reservoir to rise up to 135 meters and submerge what was left of the demolished lower sections of cities and towns. A landscape was forever changed, and the people in this region have since scrambled to find new livelihoods.

Like many people, I initially chose to visit the Three Gorges because I wanted to see a landscape of magnificent beauty that would soon be lost forever. I had heard about the mass displacement of the population, and the imminent inundation of ancient archeological sites. Such cultural upheaval is clearly lamentable, and many have booked the next cruise down the Yangtze to catch a last glimpse of this modern-day Atlantis.

In December 2001, I set out on a series of four trips to take a deeper look. Soon, I discovered that the real story behind the Three Gorges Dam project was not the landscape, but the people. I set out to interview ordinary people: on the street, in the fields, on buses, and waiting on docks. Only they could do justice to their own story. Despite the threat of censorship from the Chinese government, most spoke openly. In some cases, they even pleaded that I make use of the footage to make sure the world understands their plight. Great care will be taken to protect these peoples’ identities, but I am committed to seeing their stories told.

Understandably, views within China on the dam are wide ranging. Some see it as an engineering marvel that will stimulate the Chinese economy and provide an important source of hydroelectric power. Others consider it an environmental and social disaster. Millions of people have been affected by its construction, and in very different ways. On the one extreme are corrupted government officials lining their bank accounts with embezzled resettlement funds; on the other are the people for whom the money was intended. Left with nothing but demolished homes, many are angry and disillusioned as they struggle to find new means of subsistence without help from the Chinese government.

When asked for an opinion about the dam, most people will initially adhere to the party line. I get the sense this is usually a well-meant attempt to show China in a good light to foreigners. When I really show interest in what they have to say, however, the story changes dramatically. They may talk about how they have personally benefited from the resettlement program, but that they see many problems for other people. Or, out of fear of reprisals, they may continue to praise the dam and all of its benefits for China, but complain bitterly about how they’ve received nothing but empty promises.

Since my first visit to the Three Gorges, my perspective on the dam, and on the documentary I’m attempting to produce, has changed significantly. I started out with a specific political agenda, but I quickly discovered that my idealistic notions were distinctly those of an outsider, and didn’t jibe well in China. For many people, what’s just or unjust is less important than understanding how things could be worse and seeing that there is progress being made. Though I still firmly believe the Three Gorges Dam is a mammoth, bureaucratically decreed mistake, the events of this particular history are not unfolding in my backyard. The documentary I’m working on would not be welcome in China at this time. I now see that my personal views on the Three Gorges Dam are less important than how, through photography and video, I can give a voice to many people who are otherwise silenced.