environment at what he terms “a rapacious pace” for three decades.
Teh wanted to document those changes with the intent “to engage
contemplation” about them. His ongoing Yellow River project is part
of that effort.
He started the project in Lanzhou in 2011, after receiving a Magnum
Foundation Emergency Fund grant. He chose Lanzhou because it
was the first city built on the river and remains the largest. The area
around Lanzhou is “known as China’s cradle of civilization, one that
dates back some 5,000 years,” Teh says. “Today, it’s a fast-growing city, a
At the outset he consulted maps and researched both print and
online resources to gain an understanding of the river from historical,
environmental, economic and political perspectives. “What was
important for me was to get an overview on the river and the places I
was planning to visit. Once I had decided where I was going, the rest
of it was about exploring on the ground and seeing what I discovered.”
Teh does a lot of driving and walking in search of images. “The
area that I am exploring is vast, while my budget is limited,” he says.
“Patience and persistence are friends.”
As part of his “Traces” project, the Yellow River project emphasizes
panoramic landscapes. The scale of a panoramic image “is an important
part of the viewer experience,” particularly in exhibition settings,
he explains. But he also shoots with a 35mm camera for images that
provide context and show the region on “a more human scale.”
The portraits and images of everyday realities of peoples’ lives
“serve as reminders that these sometimes beautiful landscapes are
places where people have to live and work, and that there is another
narrative that isn’t fully revealed,” he explains, adding, “The people are
there [in several images] to humanize the landscape.”
On the surface, the images are spare, simple, and beautiful. But Teh is
most interested in finding images that have other layers of significance,
even though that significance may not be immediately apparent. One of
Teh’s favorite images is a bird’s-eye view of the Yellow River.
“Nothing is in the image other than the sunlit ripples of the river’s
water. It suggests something otherworldly and sublime, peaceful,”
he says. “I’m afforded that view because of the dam I’m standing
on, China’s first dam and an engineering feat of the ‘60s, but its
construction was fraught with problems and controversy.” (Teh notes
that his extended captions, which offer information outside the
context of the frame, are an integral part of each image.)
Pereira suggested to Teh the idea of publishing the images on
MSNBC.com as a narrated video.
“We’ve been experimenting with different approaches to
storytelling since we launched in the fall,” she says. “There is such
grace to Ian’s photographs and they lend themselves beautifully to the
fluidity of film.”
Although Teh narrates the video, he was reluctant to write the
voiceover script. “I wanted the narration to have a more lyrical
presence that matched the mood of the images, and so I suggested E. J.
Swift,” the science fiction and fantasy writer, he says.
In addition to publication by MSNBC.com, Teh’s Yellow River
project was exhibited at Open Society Foundations’ Moving Walls
2013. As he continues to work on the project, he’s looking for other
exhibition venues, including in China.
TOP: New highway. Xian, Shanxi, China, 2011. China’s highway system became the
longest in the world in 2011 when it surpassed the total length of the U.S. highway
system. ABOVE: Couple by the Yellow River at the Sanmenxia Dam, 2013.