Ian Teh

Panos Pictures

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 by Vignes Balasingam

Ian Teh by Vignes Balasingam

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.



  • Aviary. The Yellow River Delta National Nature Reserve. Dongying, China. 2016 The Yellow River Delta National Nature Reserve was set up in 1992 to protect the largest wetland ecosystem in northern China. Located in the Dongying, Shandong province, the reserve covers an area of 153,000 hectares. The ecoregion functions as a critical refueling stop for migratory birds along the Siberian-Australasian flyway. Siltation is causing the meadow to gradually advance into the Bohai Sea. In recent years, rapid development in the Bohai-rim areas has brought serious damage to the local ecology. Beyond the nature reserve, there are no protection measures in place to mitigate threats to species and habitats. The Yellow River Delta National Nature Reserve houses the second largest oil field in China: Shengli Oilfield and oil industry is the primary industry of Dongying City.
  • Abandoned Construction Site in Wetlands. Dongying, China. 2016 Behind the abandoned site is a relatively new residence that now has people living in it. The government has yet to publish any official information on the vacancy rates of underpopulated areas, especially those that are fairly recently developed. Baidu, China’s Google-like Internet search company, is using location data collected from 770 million Chinese users to take the pulse of these cities and quantify who lives there. The results of the study were published online in November 2015, but has not been peer-reviewed. It showed that some of the most famous ghost cities, covered by the media like the Kangbashi New Area in Ordos, are fairly well populated now, whilst the older suburbs have since emptied. They also revealed previously unknown ghost cities, like Dongying, an overbuilt oil boom town.
  • Fishing by Urban wetlands near the Yellow River. Binzhou, China. 2016 Binzhou lies on the alluvial plain formed by the Yellow River. The entire length of countryside around the river from Pucheng Subdistrict to the Bay of Bohai has been created by deposition of sediment since the Qin Dynasty. The name, Binzhou, arose under the Five Dynasties period because its land then bordered the Bay of Bohai. The deposition of silt from the Yellow River—which assumed its present course after the disastrous floods of the 1850s—has since moved the city well inland.