Photos by Ian Teh
Ian Teh’s internationally exhibited photographs were highly commended for the Prix Pictet prize in 2009. His book, Undercurrents, was published in celebration of his solo show in Beijing, and further works have featured in art publications such as in Elena-Ochoa Foster’s C-International Photo Magazine and archived in the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He is currently working on his project Traces.
Granta 111: Going Back
The latest issue of Granta magazine is themed ‘Going Back’ and features pieces with a wide geographical (from Sudan to Bosnia to up-state New York) and temporal (from Mark Twain in 1910 to the present day) range. The poems, essays and stories in the issue explore memory, longing, departure and return. The issue also features a thirty-two page photographic essay by Ian Teh entitled ‘Traces’ – a powerful, meticulous body of work spanning eleven years. This series of arresting, beautiful photographs is a chronicle of Teh’s travels and observations during time spent in covert analysis of China’s industrial and economic surge to it’s current status as the world’s second largest economy. In Traces, Teh is our soft-spoken guide through the ravages of China’s 21st century industrial revolution, bringing us up close to its environmental and social fallout. The unchecked devastation of rampant growth at nature’s expense.
Teh documents some of the most industrialized regions of modern China and his findings are shocking. The viewer is confronted with workers peering through an inescapable blanket of dust. There is the discomfort that bites on realizing the stark beauty of the panoramic moon-like landscapes are actually aerial views of a mutilated Yangztee river. Teh nimbly straddles journalism and art with his work. I find his concepts provide a frame for which the veracity of the medium is fogged, allowing an onlooker to respond instinctively. Those portraits of miners burrow as deep as the underground shafts in which they work and quiet intensity permeates his photographs like the dust that envelopes all.
Teh has lived his work in a way I can only admire. The result is imagery that is profound and deeply affecting, though it is an approach that is not without risk. Exposed to the same detrimental conditions as his subjects and the ever-present threat of attracting attention from uncompromising authorities, Teh’s presence as witness and chronicler pays homage to those subject indefinitely to such hostile conditions. By the same measure these photographs deserve to reach a wide audience and to propel a discourse as to what really is progress … the irreparable degradation of environment in exchange for international economic distinction.
Granta magazine has an established reputation of providing a platform for new writers to flourish. In our last issue – Granta 110: Sex – the two photo essays featured took a ‘sideways’ glance at a subject perhaps over-familiar in visual representation. The artifice of the sex industry is laid bare in Jo Broughton’s series of photographs of empty porn sets, whilst Yann Faucher’s work looks at the agreeable stillness of intimacy. The Ian Teh exposé is another step in the evolution of that other voice – a visual expression of theme. With pieces such as ‘Traces’ we hope to do the same with the visual artists we feature, to encourage discussion and break new ground, presenting art as societal commentary in a way that is subjective but accessible.
Michael Salu, Artistic Director of Granta Publications.
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