Traces II

Ian Teh

From 2006 to 2010, I photographed the coal industry in China and its impact on the western hinterlands of the country. One body of work, Traces I, was a series of landscapes, often devoid of people, that beneath their neutral surfaces harboured highly politicised histories and revealed physical traces of change caused by human intervention. Traces II, which I began in 2011, is an extension of that study, with a particular focus on the Yellow River.

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 for life downstream for thousands of years. Its environmental decline underlines the dark side of the country’s economic miracle, and is a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the 150 million people it directly sustains. There are often appropriate initiatives and legislation to protect the environment and its people, but these are systematically overlooked as the ambitions of the state are prioritised over the rule of law. My photographs offer clues to the incremental everyday changes that we fail to notice in the drive towards advancement and in the hectic minutiae of our daily lives. They attempt to show what happens when an area that was largely rural becomes increasingly urban and industrial, and to reveal the costs of rapid development on the communities beyond the river’s immediate surroundings.

By depicting these landscapes as predominantly beautiful, almost dreamlike, I seek resonance with some of the romantic notions about this once great river. The search is for a gentle beauty, but also for muted signs of a landscape in the throes of transition. I am interested in the dissonance created between the ambivalent images and 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 under way, like climate change itself, isn’t always easy to see.

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