Ian Teh travels to the edge

Malaysia-born, London-based photographer Ian Teh talks about ambiguity in landscapes and creating moving storylines within still images.

THREADS of narratives can be found all around us; being able to retell them through images is what holds true for documentary photographer Ian Teh. A glance at his work will tell you as much – with an eye for capturing ideas and concepts, rather than just still life or breathtaking sceneries, Teh has the ability to tell stories that extend far beyond the frames of his photographs.

Born in Petaling Jaya, Selangor but bred in England, Teh has developed a visual style that speaks of his keen interest in social, environmental and political issues. A collective exploration of his discoveries in the post-industrial landscapes of China can be seen in his book, Traces: Dark Clouds, which juxtaposes cold hinterland panoramas with a selection of moodier, but more intimate, human-focused imageries.

“When you watch a film, there’s always sound and the pictures move. Directors can play with time sequences and show the same narrative but at different perspectives. That’s something that we don’t have in photography. So I’m always trying to explore more novel ways of telling visual stories; just finding different ways of recreating that drama,” says Teh, 42.

His portfolio has been featured and exhibited in publications such as Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker and The Independent Magazine. In 2001, he was awarded a place in the prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass, being one among the 12 young promising photographers who were given the chance to learn from some of the most experienced individuals in photojournalism.

Teh’s work was also highly commended for the Prix Pictet prize in 2009 and 2010 – the prize is the world’s leading award dedicated to photography and sustainability. In 2010, literary magazine Granta published a 10-year retrospective of his work in China.

Documentary photographer Ian Teh finds his calling in threading narratives through the pictures he takes.

Awarded with the Emergency Fund from the Magnum Foundation in 2011, Teh went on to document some of the most industrialised areas in China at the Yellow River Basin, where rapid development has come at a significant environmental cost.

Inspired by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, Teh already had his sights set on pursuing a career in photography by the time he was 18.

“Bresson coined the term ‘the decisive moment’. One of his famous lines was: ‘To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.’ At my young age, that sounded really poetic. And then I also came across Smith’s work on the Minamata Disease – mercury poisoning at the factories in the smaller towns of Japan. His commitment to that cause really moved me.

“Between Smith and Bresson, it made me realise that there was a way to satisfy our creative urges and generate a positive impact through the things we do. Those two guys did that and at the same time, carved a living out of it.”

Teh’s first encounter with the gritty world of photojournalism came when he travelled to China and stayed on for six months, shortly after graduating with a degree in graphic design.

“I had just won a photography competition and was given a camera and travel money. I chose a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and there was nobody there whom I knew. I was partly fascinated by China’s past histories and philosophies. And me being Chinese, it was about my heritage as well. Initially, I had just planned for a two-month trip but I ended up travelling for six months. By the time I came back, I was well-versed enough to have basic conversations in Mandarin. I enjoyed that experience so much that I felt like it didn’t really matter if I wasn’t earning a living from it just yet. I was willing to explore it for a few years more to see where it would take me.”

A photo from the 'Dark Clouds' series, taken in Tai Yuan, Shanxi, China, 2006. An employee from a coal mine plays pool late in the night after work. Many workers in the coal industry come from farming communities in the countryside. Driven by poverty, they leave their homes to seek jobs in the coal industry.

Teh kept at it for three years – a journey he describes as his “education” in photography. “I came back broke; I went back out again and I just kept doing it for three years. In the end I learned that it was not just about capturing the one nice image, but how I could weave narratives into a series of images.”

Teh operates largely with film – the M6 Leica and Fuji 617 being his machines of choice – except during client commissions, when digital serves as a more practical platform. “For my personal work, I enjoy working with film. What I like is the discipline and the creative process that comes with waiting; there’s a longer period of time for consideration and reflection. On the aesthetic level, there’s also a quality about it that’s just more human.”

His photo work on Merging Boundaries, which is currently showcasing at the Leica Store Malaysia in Avenue K, Kuala Lumpur till Oct 27, was shot entirely with the Leica. The solo exhibition, Teh’s first in the country, is a collection of visuals depicting his 1,000km road trip exploring the Sino-Russian-North Korean border from 2004 to 2007.

In his process of crafting the photo essay, Teh discovered the inner workings of a bar in China catering only to Russians, and witnessed the peculiarity of Chinese tourists whose idea of a holiday meant traversing to the border for a breather, and a glimpse at the North Korean perimeters on the other side.

With a workshop coming up in Singapore (this follows a five-day workshop in Penang, conducted in June), Teh, who is now a British citizen, has been based in KL for six months now and hopes to be here for the bulk of his future work, which may entail travelling back to the Yellow River in China.

“What I did earlier was just the middle of the river; now I want to go to the source where it’s most pristine and beautiful. It’ll be about capturing how those places have changed; the price that you pay for a country that’s aspiring to have a better life.”

As a photographer who strives to innovate with every new picture that he creates, we can’t help but wonder if the going ever gets tough, especially when his work, paradoxically, centres on creative interpretations of the monotony felt within the impoverished societies that are his subjects.

“The biggest challenge is always in finding new ways of doing things. Do I ever get tired? If I’m honest – yes, of course. Working for clients is an easier ride. The hardest thing when I’m working on a personal project is about knowing what to put my attention on. When I choose to work on something, it might mean that I keep revisiting the same thing for two or three years, and that’s a long time to spend on one body of work. In some ways, I have to keep asking myself if what I’m doing has enough value for it to be worth it.”

More info at www.ianteh.com.

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Ian Teh travels to the edge


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