Together, Joel’s extensive body of work documents the cultural changes in the region, with the fishermen’s story speaking to a broader narrative of the modernisation revolution underway within China.
“Growth has been really fast in the last decade, and people have more money today than ever before,” he says. “Tourism, and especially internal tourism, has blown off the charts. In the 13 years since I first shot these fishermen, this kind of tradition has collapsed, because tourist growth in the region has been so high.”
This is encapsulated in Joel’s stark images of a blinding light show performance which sees the River Li illuminated with coloured lights. Choreographed by famous Chinese director Zhang Yi Mou, who was responsible for the lavish opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it has made Yangshuo a tourist magnet – established in 2004, the show is now held two to three times a day, every day of the year, and employs over 5,000 people.
"It’s the biggest stage in the world,” says Joel. “It has become so famous that tourists flock to it." These tourists also take to the water at night to see cormorant fishing, but what they see is a performance, far from the real fishing experience – the excessive lights, movement and noise drive the fish away.