Ian Teh – Traces: Landscapes in Transition on the Yellow River Basin


Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow River in China. Historically a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered, the river in the 1990s ceased to reach the sea at all. The Yellow River’s plight underlines the dark side of China’s economic miracle, an environmental crisis leading to scarcity of the one resource no nation can live without: water.

My photographs play with the tension between the Yellow River’s place in Chinese culture and history and China’s emergence as a major economic power. By depicting these landscapes as predominantly beautiful, almost dream-like, I seek resonance with some of the romantic notions about this once great river. At the same time, the images show the very negative physical impact of unshackled economic development, which has improved the lives of many Chinese, but has also fueled environmental collapse.

China’s complex environmental problems go beyond linking pollution to its perpetrators. They are more deeply rooted in the way the country governs itself. There are appropriate laws to protect the environment and its people, but they are systematically overlooked as the ambitions of the state are prioritized over the rule of law. By highlighting the challenges and contradictions of the Yellow River, I hope this work reveals the underlying political and economic forces driving China’s development.

“Traces: Landscapes in Transition on the Yellow River Basin” is presented in partnership with the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project.


Ian Teh was born in Malaysia and graduated from the University of Bath with a degree in graphic design. Much of Teh’s photography is guided by his concern for social and environmental issues. His series, The Vanishing: Altered Landscapes and Displaced Lives (1999-2003), records the devastating impact of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River. In later works, such as Dark Clouds (2006-2008), Tainted Landscapes (2007-2008), and the book Traces (2009), Teh explores the consequences of China’s booming economy.

Teh attended the Joop Swart Masterclass (2001), received honorable mention at the Prix Pictet prize (2009), and was awarded the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund grant (2012). His work has been published in C International Photo Magazine, Granta, Newsweek International, and Time, and is included in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Exhibitions include solo shows at Jack Shainman Gallery (2003) and the Kunsthal Rotterdam (2012). Teh is a visiting photography lecturer at the University of Bath and is represented by Panos Pictures and Agence VU’.

About OSF

The Open Society Foundations work to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens. Working with local communities in more than 100 countries, the Open Society Foundations support justice and human rights, freedom of expression, and access to public health and education. Through grants and the Moving Walls exhibition series, the Open Society Documentary Photography Project supports photography to engage and mobilize people around issues of justice and human rights.

Ian Teh’s Traces: Landscapes in Transition on the Yellow River Basin is also currently showing at the Open Society Foundations as part of Moving Walls 20.
Location: 224 West 57th Street, NYC, NY.
Hours: M-F, 10am-4pm.

Please note that due to construction, the exhibition is temporarily closed from August 12 to September 3, 2013.
For more information, visit our website at www.movingwalls.org.