Experience

Ian Teh’s 10 favorite pictures

At the request of Bird In Flight, British photographer Ian Teh selected 10 of his favorite pictures from his archive and explained why he likes them.

Ian Teh 44

British photographer. He was born in Malaysia and works mainly in London and in Kuala-Lumpur. His pictures were published in Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker and in the Independent Magazine. He got the Abygail Koen scholarship in 2014 and an EF grant from the Magnum Foundation in 2011. He has exhibited in China, Holland, USA. He has published three monographs: Undercurrents (2008), Traces (2011) and Confluence (2014). He cooperates with VU and Panos Pictures photo agencies.

When I was invited to choose my 10 favourite images and tell the stories connected to them, my first thought was the many ways I could approach this. One could prioritise the images that are most striking, or the ones that have a good back story, or pick the image that has great significance to the story being told. In the end, I realised that most of my favourite images come from a complex mix of all of the above and beyond. Furthermore, it seems to me the qualities that I consider most important at a particular moment tends to shift over a period of time. Sometimes what I value most in an image becomes less significant because it is superseded by other qualities that have come to the fore. Perhaps this relationship to one’s favourite images is not dissimilar to our human relationships. We love for many reasons, perhaps initially because of beauty but beauty’s shape inevitably evolves overtime as we see other nuances through the prism of time.


A miner is playing billiards after work. From Clouds collection. Taiyuan, China.

I remember when I first discovered this ‘working men’s club’, it was below a busy roundabout that had small shops and tiny stairwells that lead to this underground labyrinth. It was completely unexpected and I felt that I had stumbled upon this vast secret underworld where men from
mines, petrochemical plants and other ‘tough’ working class jobs would come to pass their evening away after a hard day’s work. The place was equivalent or if not larger than the roundabout that lay above with its complex of shops and traffic that buzzed above. In this cavern were small bars,
snooker tables and hostesses. There was nothing glamorous about it and yet, it had its own unique ambience that was at once enchanting as it was gritty.


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Workers of the chemical-recovery factory. From the Clouds collection. Bancy, China.

When I was working on my series Dark Clouds, so much of what I wanted to convey was about a world of dark dreams. Beyond the realities and issues, I was trying to depict the suffocating reality of a life time working in an environment heavily laced with carcinogenic fumes. At that time China was building
2 coal power stations a week and recent reports say the number is now closer to 4. This image has always been one of my favourites because of its evocative nature. The anonymity of the workers in the photograph, for me, becomes a symbol of how this period of China’s industrialisation has made
the great mass of individuals essentially anonymous cogs in a giant machine.


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Chinese bosses and Russians. From the Clouds collection. From the Fusion of borders series. Suifenhe, China.

This project was a road trip exploring the border towns along the Sino Russian and North-Korean border. I was interested in the shared political ideologies and histories of these countries. Most of all I wondered how the merging of these cultural elements would manifest itself on the daily lives of those who lived on the Chinese border.
The picture was taken in a Russian bar for Russian clientele only and it was owned by Chinese businessmen. The town, Suifenhe, means ‘Little Moscow’ in Chinese. Russian tourists and traders come
here to shop in the markets for cheaply manufactured Chinese goods. At night, the Wanda bar was one of the venues Russians would go to. After days of visiting this bar, I encountered a rare moment when the musicians and clients, all of whom were Russian, mingled around the Chinese bosses in the early hours of the night. It was an important scene that captured the overlapping layers of culture and race that I was looking for.
Five years later, I revisited the town again, looking for the same bar. When I got there it was just a run down empty shell. I was told that it had
moved. Walking to the new location I was stopped at the entrance by a group of men in a car. One of them shouted, “Hey, no Chinese allowed in there!” I turned around but at that moment a look of recognition crossed both our faces. These were the same Chinese bosses I had photographed five years earlier. They let me in after but they looked rather forlorn in their thick overcoats on that cold winter’s night on an empty street.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_03.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:””}


From the Fusion of Borders series. Hunchun, China.

There is something about borders that captures my imagination. I’m not sure if it is because they are artificially made by man but it is because of these borders that the crossing of them actually creates its own unique environment. Added to the fact that this is in a remote town in a politically
sensitive region it was a rather surreal moment for me to encounter this sharply dressed young girl in her uniform and bright red tie in this cafe that was trying very hard to be fashionable. Such a contrast but what keeps me looking at her again and again even after all this time is her steady and direct gaze
filled with distant ambiguity as she hands me the bill.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_04.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:””}

The waitress’ look was straight and ambiguous at the same time, and it makes me look at this girl again and again, however much time has passed.


From the Fusion of Borders series. Hunchun, China.

“The Three Gorges Dam is the largest dam in the world and the process of building it meant displacing 1.5 million people whilst destroying the cities, towns and villages that they lived in along 700 kilometres of mostly historic and ecologically fertile land. When I started this project in 1999, I kept revisiting it every
year to see the changes on the river. It was 2003 when I took this picture, and I remember when I first visited this town, I had stayed in a hotel on a very busy street. But on that day, the hotel and the busy street no longer existed, all that was there was a flattened landscape. In the
foreground, the last family in the area is moving out. Today this area is completely flooded, a part of the Yangtze, China’s longest river.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_05.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:”From Disappearance series. The last leaving family. Ushan.”}


From the Fusion of borders series. Hunchun, China.

I visited Linfen, China’s most polluted city back in 2006. Chinese New Year was approaching, and many of the industrial places I visited were temporarily closed. The government was trying to avoid any major accidents around that important holiday period and at the same time reduce the amount of bad press relating to pollution with the coming Chinese Olympics. Seeing these industrial landscapes affected by pollution was
transformative for me. Up to that point my stories were about the people caught up in a tainted environment but with these places now devoid of people the landscape became an opportunity to reflect upon humanity’s impact on nature as a result of its material aspirations.
In this picture, the road is covered in coal dust whilst over looking farmland but where I was standing was a
coal power station belching out its noxious fumes. Down the road where I had walked from were parents collecting their children from school. They were curious about my presence, and didn’t realise I understood what they were saying. They assumed I was a journalist reporting on the pollution and one mother said to another,”…it’s not surprising really, look at our kids, their faces are covered with soot from the coal dust and pollution in our village.”


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_06.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:”From Spoilt Landscapes II. Farm. Linfen, China.”}


The quarry and the temple. From Signs II series. Bayin, China.

When I started my series Traces II, I was looking for landscapes that had hidden narratives. It was important to me that my images would work with symbolism or that serene beauty would be one of the first attributes people would experience when looking at my pictures. It was the second layer of
experience that revealed some kind of dissonance in the landscape. For me that was an important way to convey the experience of environmental loss.
In this image, the forms are somewhat similar to a traditional Chinese painting in an ancient riverine world
except the lush green hills and water have instead been replaced by the gravel hills and a parched, dusty land. All that remains from the past is a temple. The scene is a metaphor for what China has sacrificed.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_07.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:””}


From Signs II series. Yellow river banks. Hetszin, China.

This next image comes from the same series, Traces II. The couple on the bank sits in a secluded area along the Yellow River. The scene is idyllic. The irony is that outside my photographic frame and on the opposite banks of the river are industrial plants. The full impact of this scene was rendered all the more powerful, for me, because I had seen in detail the surrounding industrial landscape. I recognised in the couple their primal need to find some kind of pastoral
beauty to enjoy their weekend, even if that piece of quiet was an island within a sea of industrial chaos.
Throughout this series, I depict 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 when presented in a show or publication. 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.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_08.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:”Из серии «Следы II». Берега Жёлтой реки. Хэцзинь, Китай.”}


Pig farm. From the Fusion series. Sounguy Pelek, Malaysia.

When I was working on my book Confluence, I was looking for daily life realities of different ethnic communities living along the coastline. This pig farm was owned by a Chinese family. Seeing the pigs in their pens, I was struck by how sentient they were, their expressions almost human like. Whilst I eat meat, that experience made me feel like I shouldn’t. My assistant, who is Malay Muslim, sat in the car watching me work from a distance. She doesn’t eat pork because it is not allowed according to Islamic laws but the experience of being inside a farm that was growing animals for meat
made her become vegetarian later on.
This image is also important to me because it highlighted how a person’s race, religion and culture determined the kind of work and activities that they can do.
Malaysia is one of the most multicultural societies on earth, and its unique and important position as a maritime trading hub throughout the centuries brought commerce but also foreign influences that essentially determined the nation’s cultural makeup and history. Hindu and Buddhist cultures imported from India
dominated its early history for centuries. Islam established itself in the 14th and 15th centuries on the Malay Peninsula. The rise of the colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries brought the Portuguese, Dutch and eventually the British into the region, followed by further migrations of Chinese and Indian workers to meet the needs of the colonial economy. Today it continues undergo deep transformations within its physical and cultural landscapes.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_09.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:””}

My Muslim assistant hasn’t eaten pork since childhood, and after visiting the pig farm she stopped eating meat completely.


Picture of an abandoned building. From the Fusion series. Port Clang, Malaysia.

The framed picture, switches for lights and a ceiling fan make up a scene that would be normal indoors except that this scene was outside in a passage way that ran along a busy street with traffic. The building itself was a pre-war colonial building, run-down and and derelict for the most part except for the few inhabitants that couldn’t afford to move out. Brothels had set up in the back entrance of the building block, the prostitutes were mostly illegal migrants catering to the passing traffic from Malaysia’s largest port.
I have other images from this series that are obviously more dramatic, direct or
aesthetically pleasing but I like the contradictions and ambiguity contained within this image. I like how the idyllic landscape in the picture represents a better world in which one would prefer to escape to but the reality is actually outside of the framed image. The irony is that much of that green lush landscape exists in Malaysia but a lot has since been lost to the palm oil industry and to development. Malaysia was ranked no. 1 in the world last year for deforestation.
The book, Confluence, documents a journey along the short coastline of Selangor, the richest state in
Malaysia. It is a portrait of a state and a metaphor for the the country. On the shore, an hour away from the nation’s glittering capital, are the gritty industrialised shipping terminals of Port Klang and the sleepy, seemingly idyllic rural towns that populate the Selangor waterfront. The series aims to offer a nuanced document of what this coastline is today, and a sense of the significant changes that are ongoing. Here, where land meets sea and cultures collide, entire worlds and realities shift and merge into each other, and questions of race, belonging and identity take on new meanings.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IANTEH_10.jpg”, “alt”: “Ian Teh”, “text”:””}

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