At this distance the bathers look like meerkats. They stand upright, attentive to the river lapping at their rock. One rubs his chin. He's playing for time, but no one is exactly racing him into the grey, clouded water. On the headland beyond them a kind of industrial longhouse with smokestack appended dissolves into the mist, or perhaps resolves out of it. Everything is cold, vaporous. A boulder the size of the Zayed Mosque looms above the tiny pink figures. It's a postcard from over the edge, a holiday snap from some spiritual abyss.
"It was never intended to be a project in sustainability," says Nadav Kander carefully when I call him in London, "but I can quite see how it would influence people to positive action." Bathers is one of the pictures Kander took by the Yangtze River between 2006 and 2009. He travelled along and around the river, trying to catch the mood of life on the most populous shores on the planet. "I was very aware that if I just travelled the Yangtze I would come back with very National Geographic pictures, and I'm not really interested," he explains. "So although these works might now look like documentary, or are a document of what I saw, it's not really my intention." On the contrary, what he wanted was nothing less than, as he puts it, "to take pictures of how I feel".
"After a few trips, I started realising how I was slipping away from everything - how I was tending to photograph almost voyeuristically and from the shadows," he says. By keeping China at arm's length, the scale of its development becomes apparent. People are specks in the shadow of cement piles and earth works, yet they keep beetling on. In one image a woman seems to sleepwalk across a mudflat in the shadow of a vast concrete bridge. A motorcycle rusts in the water behind her, as if she had just ridden across the riverbed and parked up once she reached dry land. She looks unstoppable.
"The metaphor of the river constantly moving and constant change is obviously at the forefront of my mind," Kander says. "I'm looking at China and feeling what China is like. There's huge migration there. There are more people in China that are away from their families and have been for six or eight months or a year than live in the USA. So there are more than 300 million people that are just wandering around, working in the state of flux, and it had a big effect on me.
"It's quite different to going to Shanghai, travelling up the river. It really is quite a hard life for a lot of people. And that's your mental state while looking for pictures that are telling as well as quite beautiful." Whatever his mental state, he found them. Late last year Kander's series won the photographer the second ever Prix Pictet award. The prize was established in 2008 by the Swiss Bank Pictet and Cie with the intention of highlighting issues of global importance: this year's theme was "Earth". It's a major prize. Entrants were put forward by nomination and judged by a panel that included the architect Zaha Hadid, the UK's former chief science advisor Professor David King and a good chunk of the Financial Times arts desk. Kofi Annan, the prize's honourary president, handed over the 100,000-franc (Dh343,000) cheque.
More flattering than the panel and the prize was the competition. Kander was up against the likes of Naoya Katakeyama, Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky, photographers who made names for themselves precisely by shooting the changing face of the planet. "There were people there that I was very, very happy to be with," Kander says. "And then to win it on the night was very very surprising. I really didn't think it could happen." He laughs. "It was lucky I was even in the room at the time."
This week Dubaians can judge Kander's work for themselves. His part of his winning series, plus a selection from the other shortlisted work, is going on display at the Empty Quarter gallery in Dubai's International Financial Centre. It should be a spectacular show. Along with Kander's work we'll get to see Ed Kashi's Goya-ish dispatches from Nigeria, Katakeyama's hallucinatory visions of excavation and subterranean space and Christopher Anderson's quasi-formalist farmland studies, to mention just a few of the series in store. Kander himself won't be in town. At the time of our conversation he's holed up in London trying to figure out his next move. "My work sort of happens to me more than I think of an idea and then follow it through," he says. "It's not easy coming."
Kander's whole approach to photography is intuitive to the point of opacity. He keeps apologising for not being able to explain what he does. "I can't really ever put my finger on my process," he says. "My work informs me. That's all I can say." Expanding on the theme he remarks: "I go into pictures and they happen to me. There are things I see that nourish me that I then photograph. It's how I'm feeling that pulls me to be in a certain place or [makes me] look in a certain way."
Despite this rather mystical account of his methods, Kander manages to combine his artistic work with high-profile advertising jobs for the likes of Adidas and Levi's. He did the famous poster images of tutu-ed dancers scissor-kicking their way around railway sidings and multistorey car parks for the English National Ballet. He shot the sleeve art for records by Placebo, Snow Patrol and Richard Ashcroft. "I find it very exciting working commercially because it's communication," he says. "When you work on day one and start discussing the thing and then on day 20 photographing it, and then on day 90, 60 million people might see something, it's interesting- Far more people see the commercial work than see the artwork, that's for sure."
And perhaps he likes the discipline of it. Kander learned photography during a mandatory stint in the South African air force (he was born in Israel in 1961 but moved to South Africa when he was three years old). The military instruction he got was "very basic, but [my] only formal training". Still, he says, "I had been mad about photography since I was about 13, so I knew how to take pictures. I'm very logical, so the craft side of photography was there." At 21 he moved to London and worked as an assistant for a series of professionals.
"I was apprenticed to the craft of photography, definitely," he says. "I didn't do Royal College. I didn't do the art background. Anything that happens to me in the art world is just happening because my work does the speaking. It's certainly not me, as you can hear." That work has opened some impressive doors, and not only in the art world. Americans will know Kander best for a January 2009 edition of The New York Times Magazine. It was given over entirely to a series of 53 portraits of the newly inaugurated President Obama and his aides. The magazine commissioned Kander when it became apparent that Obama was headed for the White House. Kander went to Washington and Chicago during the presidential transition, lining up Team Obama's central figures and shooting them in tight focus against a white background.
"They were excited, some of them were," Kander recalls. "Not many of them realised that there would be so many in one magazine. So people just turned up, wearing the clothes that they happened to be in that day... If people came with six pens in their pockets and pocket protectors and two BlackBerrys on their belt, that's how they're gonna look. If later they say I look like a nerd? Well, yeah." The results are fascinating, at once intimate and forensic. Ellen Moran fixes the camera with a glassy star. Tim Geithner writhes and pouts like an Egon Schiele portrait. Ken Salazar looks like a stuffed cowboy. These are not kind pictures.
"To me it seemed like the right way to not date them," Kander says. "To me that's interesting. I'm absolutely positive that had I taken 53 flattering portraits, they wouldn't have been interesting and having the museum shows they're having." Portraiture and landscape are the two poles of Kander's art. But perhaps they're really just different facets of the same interest. As he says: "I seem to be attracted to troubled landscapes. I enjoy working with landscape, showing the effects of man, the palm-print of man, on the earth. I'm not really interested in natural landscape in any way, or pictorial landscape for that matter." He pauses. "The landscape is only interesting to me when it shows the story of, what's a good word for it? Mankind." Evidently Pictet found its man.
A selection from the 2009 Prix Pictet shortlist is on show at the Empty Quarter gallery at the Dubai International Financial Centre until March 6.