One in five people in the world get their water from great Asian rivers linked to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in northwestern China. Here beneath a gently undulating landscape, spring the headwaters of the Yellow River, which sweep three thousands miles across China on their way to the sea. When they make it. The Yellow River now runs dry so often that some scientists have argued it ought to be considered a seasonal phenomenon. The plateau is also a beacon for climate change. Like the Arctic, for the past 50 years, the land beneath its expansive ice fields has warmed much faster than the rest of the world. Scientists call it “the third pole.”
Through my panoramic images, I seek resonance with some of the romantic notions of the once great Yellow River. The search is for a gentle beauty that is characteristic of this plateau, but also for muted signs of a landscape in the throes of transition caused by human intervention. These traces of change within the landscape serve as a way to connect with the frontlines of climate change where the environmental crisis underway, like climate change itself, isn’t always easy to see.
Ian Teh has been photographing China for more than 15 years. His photography expresses his concern for social, environmental and political. Amongst selected works, 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 Valley. In later works, such as “Dark Clouds” (2006-2008), “Tainted Landscapes” (2007-2008) and “Traces” (2009-), Teh explores the darker consequences of China’s booming economy. His work is part of the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Hood Museum in the U.S.
ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society’s Center on U.S. China Relations. It seeks to foster a more informed, nuanced, and vibrant public conversation about China in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The Magnum Photos membership created the Magnum Foundation to build on the agency’s longstanding tradition of photography in the public interest. The Foundation strives to use documentary imagery to advance human rights and social justice, and to promote a deeper understanding of critical issues.
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This installation was produced with the support of Magnum Foundation’s Counter Histories initiative, focused on creatively reframing the past to engage with urgent questions of the present and future. This project was made with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation.