British photographer Ian Teh was born in Malaysia and came to London in his early teens. Upon graduating from the University of Bath with a degree in graphic design and winning the 1993 Time Out Photographer of the Year Award, Teh decided to travel to China to explore the country, photography, and his heritage.
Much of Teh’s photography is guided by and conveys his concern for social and environmental issues. His series, The Vanishing: Altered Landscapes and Displaced Lives (1999–2003), records the devastating impact of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River. In later works, such as Dark Clouds (2006–2008), Tainted Landscapes (2007–2008), and the book Traces (2009), Teh explores the consequences of China’s booming economy.
Teh has received numerous honors. He was awarded a place in the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2001, and in 2009, his work received honorable mention at the Prix Pictet prize. He won the Emergency Fund grant from the Magnum Foundation in 2012. Teh’s photography has been published in C International Photo Magazine, Newsweek International, and Time. In 2010, Granta published a 10-year retrospective of his photographs from China. He had his debut solo show in 2003 at Jack Shainman Gallery. Teh has exhibited both nationally and internationally, most recently with a solo show, Dark Clouds, at the Kunsthal Rotterdam. His photography is part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Since 2012, he has been a visiting photography lecturer at the University of Bath. Teh is represented by Panos Pictures and Agence VU’.
Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow River in China.
Historically a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered, the river in the 1990s ceased to reach the sea at all. This environmental decline is a tragedy with consequences extending far beyond the 150 million people the river directly sustains. The river’s plight also underlines the dark side of China’s economic miracle, an environmental crisis leading to scarcity of the one resource no nation can live without: water.
During the years I spent photographing the coal industry in China, I became interested in how economic development was affecting the country’s landscape. I was less focused on the individual human stories and more interested in the marks left by man and how they affected communities undergoing radical transformation.
My photographs play with the tension between the Yellow River’s place in Chinese culture and history and China’s emergence as a major economic power. I have always been struck by how the nation’s focus on getting ahead has marginalized other concerns. By using the landscape, I attempt to show what happens when an area that was largely rural becomes increasingly urban and industrial.
By depicting these landscapes as predominantly beautiful, almost dream-like, I seek resonance with some of the romantic notions about this once great river. At the same time, the images are meant to show the very negative physical impact of economic development. My images aim to reveal this disconnect and provide insight into the costs imposed on the environment and communities beyond the river’s immediate surroundings.
Unshackled development has improved the lives of many Chinese, but has also fueled environmental collapse. These topographical changes hint at the underlying political and economic forces at play in today’s China. There are appropriate laws to protect the environment and its people, but they are systematically overlooked as the ambitions of the state are prioritized over the rule of law.
These connections and the larger issues of development’s impact are what make photographing this fabled river interesting to me. China’s complex environmental problems go beyond linking pollution to its perpetrators. They are more deeply rooted in the way the country governs itself. By highlighting the challenges and contradictions of the Yellow River, I hope this work reveals the intricate forces driving China’s development.
—Ian Teh, April 2013