"As a 'rephotographer', I looked not only for vantage points, but advantage points, places from which I could see the Great Wall in the past and the present -- side by side."
It happened like this. When I published ‘Alone on the Great Wall’ my publisher, Hodder & Stoughton of London sent me on a publicity tour of the UK. After an interview on BBC Radio Oxford, a reader sent a letter to me in the care of the publishers. The writer, Mrs Marjorie Hessel-Tiltman, aged 89, said she’d read and much enjoyed my Great Wall book. She added that she had another book, which might be of interest. She wrote: “….’The Great Wall of China, written by an American, William Edgar Geil, was published in 1909 and contains many wonderful illustrations….”
The generous Mrs. Hessel-Tiltman sent me the book. When I opened it I soon realised that I was not ‘William the Conqueror’. I was William the Second.
William Geil and I had made parallel journeys, he from east to west in 1908, me from west to east in 1987. We were destined to meet, and make a deal, at a place called ‘Luowenyu’ in Hebei Province, which we had both depicted in our respective books.
William Geil’s 1908 photo of Luowenyu showed him sitting in front of a large watchtower. My 1987 image showed that the tower as rubble. At that moment I realised how vintage photos of the Wall were of special value: they allowed us to see sections and architectural elements of the Great Wall that are no longer there.
On the eve of the Millennium as I hiked up to the Wall I was thinking about what the old ramparts and what its towers might witness in the upcoming new century. I feared the worst. It was then I thought how a journey to revisit the locations that had been photographed earlier by William Geil, and other Great Wall explorers and passers-by, could generate pairs of provocative ‘then’ and ‘now’ images to show what tragedies had impacted upon the monument in the last century or so. The work, I hoped, we hoped, might influence a better future for the Wall.
Eventually, in 2003, I began to revisit and rephotograph the Great Wall. For the next five years I rephotographed more than 150 locations. The most revealing changes made it into a book ‘The Great Wall Revisited’ and an exhibition of the same name, first shown at the Capital Museum, Beijing (2007), then later (2008-09), with new found materials, at the Beijing's Imperial Academy. Subsequently the exhibition has been staged at various provincial venues, including the Jiayuguan Fortress and Shanhaiguan Great Wall Museum. Over these years my journey along the Great Wall in the past and present gained a short and succinct name: ‘The Wall of Two Williams”.