Traces: Landscapes in Transition on the Yellow River Basin
Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow River. Historically a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered, it has provided water and life downstream for thousands of years. It is to the Chinese what the Nile is to Egypt: the cradle of civilization. Traces: Landscapes in Transition on the Yellow River Basin, which I began in 2011, are landscape studies often devoid of people. Their neutral surfaces harbour highly politicised histories and reveal physical traces of change caused by human intervention.
The Yellow River’s environmental decline underscores the dark side of the country’s economic miracle; a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the 150 million people it directly sustains. While adequate initiatives and legislation to protect the environment and its people exist, these are systematically overlooked as the grand ambitions of the state are prioritized over the rule of law. My photographs offer clues to the incremental everyday changes that we fail to notice amidst the relentless drive towards advancement and the hectic minutiae of our daily lives. They allude to the impact of urbanization and industrialization on a largely rural area—revealing the costs of rapid development beyond the river’s immediate surroundings.
By depicting these landscapes as predominantly beautiful, almost dreamlike, I seek resonance with romantic notions of the past about this once great river. The search is for a gentle beauty laden with muted signs of a landscape in the throes of transition. I am interested in the dissonance created between these elements as well as the historical, economic and scientific narrative that accompanies them. My hope is that together they connect viewers to the front lines of climate change, where the environmental crisis underway, like climate change itself, isn’t always easy to see.
My work on the source and the middle reaches of the Yellow River has been generously supported supported by the the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund in 2011 and the Abigail Cohen Fellowship for Photography in 2014, a joint grant from Asia Society’s China File and the Magnum Foundation. My aim and hope is to continue this next segment of my work on the river delta for my next trip this April 2015.
Basic environmental facts about the Yellow River and its Delta
- The Yellow River is indicative of the problems affecting many of China’s rivers. Pollution, hydropower, and intensive water extraction for human consumption, agriculture, and industrial use are all taking their toll on the river. (WWF)
- The Chinese government estimates that around two-thirds of the Yellow River’s water is too polluted to drink and according to the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based NGO, 4.3 billion tonnes of waste flowed into the Yellow River in 2005. (WWF)
- Around 30% of fish species in the river are believed to have become extinct and the river’s fish catch declined by 40%. (WWF)
- Dongying, a city in the Yellow River delta, has become a battlefield for petrochemical developers and environmental campaigners over the past decade because of its rich oil reserves. When the development zone was first planned, environmental experts called for careful planning and protection. However, there are now around twelve chemical and petrochemical enterprises near the nature reserve, with 2 companies located just 10 meters from the protected areas. (China Daily, 2015 report).
Ian Teh has published three monographs, Undercurrents (2008), Traces (2011) and Confluence (2014). His work is part of the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) and the Hood Museum in the USA. Selected solo shows include the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York in 2004, Flowers in London in 2011 and the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam in 2012.
Teh has received several honours, including the Abigail Cohen Fellowship in Documentary Photography in 2014 and the Emergency Fund from the Magnum Foundation in 2011. In 2013, he was elected by the Open Society Foundations to exhibit in New York at the Moving Walls Exhibition. In 2015, during COP21 during the Paris climate talks, large poster images of his work was displayed on the streets of Paris as part of a collaborative initiative by #Dysturb and Magnum Foundation. He is a co-exhibitor to an environmental group show of internationally acclaimed photographers, Coal + Ice, curated by Susan Meiselas. It was recently exhibited at the Official Residence of the US Ambassador to France during COP21 and is also currently showing in Shanghai.
Teh’s work has been published internationally in distinguished magazines such as Time, The New Yorker, GEO and Granta. Since 2013, he has exhibited as well as conducted masterclasses at Obscura Festival of Photography, Malaysia’s foremost photo festival. He subsequently became a tutor at Cambodia’s well known Angkor Photo Festival in 2014. Teh is a member of two prestigious agencies, VU and Panos Pictures.