Traces: The Frontline of Climate Change
“I even overheard policemen standing by the side of the road say ‘Oh look at that! Isn’t that beautiful? I wonder what that is all about,” recounts Ian Teh of the reactions to his 16 foot panoramic photograph depicting a mountain range in Qinghai, China as it was carried down Central Park West in the September 21 People’s Climate March.
Evocative of traditional monumental landscape paintings, Ian Teh’s photograph stood out from the throngs of slogan-bearing signs and banners as a silent beacon.
“It’s all about getting people to get not just the message but to want to keep digging further. So they become engaged and become involved in the process,” says Ian. Situating the glacial lands of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau within urban Manhattan sparked meaningful conversation and carried forth the spirit of shared global responsibility.
Ian Teh is one of two inaugural Abigail Cohen Fellows in Documentary Photography, a fellowship organized by Magnum Foundation and Asia Society’s ChinaFile. His latest body of work, Traces: Navigating the Frontline of Climate Change, explores the darker side of China’s rapid industrialization - where the expansive ice fields are warming faster than the rest of the world and the Yellow River repeatedly runs dry.
In 2000, after China’s Yellow River had begun to dry up in the warming climate, government officials started a program to protect its source, Sanjiangyuan (“Three River Source”), in Qinghai province. Ngoring, pictured here, is a large freshwater lake in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, as the project is known. Photograph by Ian Teh.
Traces was also featured this September at Photoville, an annual photography festival in repurposed shipping containers along the waterfront in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Designed by Public Works Collaborative to be an immersive experience, Ian’s installation included an original score by musician Ben Sollee and take-away collectors’ postcards that highlight the issues at stake – contextualized by the timely UN Climate Summit that brought 125 world leaders together in New York City.
In an extended edit of Traces published by The New Yorker, writer Evan Osnos hits on the nuance between poetic composition and emblematic proclamation that so captured the attention of the NYPD officers and others at the People’s Climate March and at Photoville. He writes, “It might be tempting to see Teh’s work as a retreat from our moment, a search for timelessness. That would be a mistake. This series is an alarm, an announcement of terrible beauty, heralding the advancing threat that we pose to our planet.”