Malaysia-born British photographer Ian Teh has documented the environmental situation in China for over 15 years with a focus on how “man’s desires affected the landscape”. His series Traces I and Traces II follow the Yellow River as it meanders through the country to show the marks of industry and development along its banks. The panoramas eschew typical apocalyptic views of pollution and instead show in an understated tone man’s deliberate manipulation or presence on the land.
With support from ChinaFile and Magnum Foundation, Teh presents a new installment in the series, Traces: Navigating the Frontline of Climate Change, at this year’s Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park which runs through September 28. The photographs take us to the sources of the Yellow River high in the mountains of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in northwestern China where global industrial activity has affected this remote Asian region. In the last 50 years, glacial ice fields have receded, and sections of the over 3,000-mile river, known in Chinese culture as “Mother River” and “China’s Sorrow”, often run dry, affecting hundreds of millions of people who depend on its flow.
We recently spoke to Teh about the Traces series, what led him to China, and his vision for his photography.
You’ve been photographing China for sometime now. What brought you there and what brings you back?
I first visited China in 1995, it was the beginning of my photographic practice and my curiosity was sparked from watching news and documentary footages during my teenage years of a country that was opening up and at the same time undergoing a tumultuous change. Personally, the trip was a litmus test for whether this type of exploratory photography practice could also be a way of life for me. At the same time, I was curious about a familial connection: my grandfather, whom I had never met, came from China. That first journey was an incredible personal experience, and I was fascinated by the changes that the nation was undergoing, the palpable excitement from its people who were hungry to evolve and learn. I decided then that I would always keep coming back every year, and over the years, I have continued to return.
How did you become interested in social and environmental issues, and what guides your vision?
In the early years, I was very much influenced by photographers like Eugene Smith who saw photography as an opportunity to communicate issues of import and at best affect change. In the years of witnessing China’s development, I saw a nation realising its dreams of modernisation at a pace that is unmatched throughout history. At the heart of it was an industrial revolution whose rapacious hunger for energy from coal and cheap labour was what helped build the glittering cities and the country’s new economy. Simultaneously, I was impressed by the transactional cost, a heavy price that was brought upon the environment and the people’s health in exchange for our collective material desires.
Tell us about the Traces series. Did you always intend for it to be a multi-part series?
My work are a series of progressions, Traces and Dark Clouds looked at the heart of the industrial revolution in China from two perspectives. Dark Clouds documented the daily realities of life within the coal industry from mining to steel production and Traces looked at the marks left on the landscape through man’s industry. Traces (II) : Landscapes in Transition on the Yellow River Basin is a broader look at the urbanisation and industrialisation of the countryside, it explores the issue of water scarcity and environmental degradation through the lens of development whilst contrasting it to the cultural and historical significance of the Yellow River, also affectionately known as China’s Mother River. It is sadly ironic, that the Yellow River historically credited as the cradle of Chinese civilisation has for many decades been struggling for its survival through overuse and pollution.
I suppose my work is a bittersweet lament, at the price we pay for our advancement. And in that sorrow there lies the question: is there a better way?
Traces I portrays man’s violence on the land. In a few photos, we see destructive and industrial imposition. In many photos, we see scars in the landscapes. Traces II conveys a different tone. There seems to be more of a constructive presence. Can you elaborate on this shift?
Whilst much of Traces I looks at the scars upon the landscape by man Traces II attempts to look more at the transactional cost involved in the dream to modernise. I leave you with this quote that surmises eloquently what I hope from this series:
Biologist E. O. Wilson, “traced the birth of ‘modern humanity,’ to a moment “about ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture. The economic history that followed,” he stated, “can be summarized very succinctly as follows: people used every means they could devise to convert the resources of Earth into wealth.” Today, the migration, allocation, & accumulation of wealth is transforming our Earth. [source]
And fundamentally altering our lives. However, the relational complexities and transactional costs of this phenomenon—affectionately referred to as “development”—are often cloaked in our everyday.
Tell us about the journey along the river.
The series is still ongoing and I have made visits to the upper and middle reaches of the river. The distance are often vast because the river nearly spans the breadth of the country. I’ve been making visits nearly every year since 2011. Its a game of patience, the only constant is the search for the various elements that you need within a scene that can express the ideas you are exploring.
For the photographers, can you tell us about the equipment and film used for shooting this series?
For you, which is the poignant or powerful photograph in the series?
There are a few, I like the quarry, the couple on the river banks and the ariel water scape.
1) The quarry because it is reminiscent of a Chinese painting, with the temple on the hills. The foreground where water should be in a painting, is replaced by dirt and mounds of gravel, whilst the bridge is replaced by conveyor belts that carry the gravel.
2) The couple on the banks of the river, because it offers a quiet pastoral scene but if you look closely in the distance on the opposite banks of the river are industrial plants that populate the horizon. In fact all around this peaceful scene is some construction or development that is not shown, what is shown is the last vestige of a river bank that locals come to visit to pass away their free time.
3) The aerial water scape. I’m afforded this view because of the dam I am standing on. I like it because of the sublime feelings that gets evoked from looking at this scene and at the same time it contradicts the reality surrounding what is China’s first major water control project, a dam built in the late 60s, and officially hailed as a success and a feat of engineering
Yellow River. Sanmenxia, Henan, China, 2011.
For more about Teh’s work and the new series, you can view his recent talk at Asia Society’s “Climate Change at High Altitude” where he also joins photographer David Breashears and Asia Society’s Orville Schell for discussion.
Traces: Navigating the Frontline of Climate Change is on view at Photoville at Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park through September 28.
Images courtesy of Ian Teh