Dua nasihat yang sering dikongsikan oleh Sebastiao Salgado kepada mereka yang mahu menceburi dunia dokumentari. Pertama anda perlu menjadi individu ynag mampu merancang dan berfikir secara visual, kedua anda perlu memahami dan mendalami pelbagai bidang seperti sosiologi, antropologi, ekonomi, politik dan geopolitik untuk memahami rangka kerja yang anda lakukan. Berbekalkan dua nasihat ini seseorang mampu mengupas sesuatu isu atau cerita dengan memberi gambaran yang lebih besar kepada penonton.
Apabila saya meneliti hasil kerja Ian Teh, ia adalah apa yang Sebatioa Salgado sering sampaikan. Walaupun Ian secara peribadi menyatakan pengaruh kerja beliau banyak diperolehi dari wiranya Eugene Smith.
Melalui interview yang kami hantar, Ian Teh berkongsi pandangan beliau tentang kebuasan kapitalism, inspirasi dan masa depan cerah fotografi Asia Tenggara.
How did you first get into photography?
There were three key points that brought me to photography. The first was the dawning recognition in my 20s that photography could influence the world for the better. This was epitomised by my formative heroes like Eugene Smith, who documented communities devastated by industrial mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. He was instrumental in highlighting the issue and effecting positive change.
The second was the idea that photography could be, in a philosophical sense, a way of life for the learning and enrichment of oneself. Cartier Bresson expressed this eloquently and his words were an inspiration to me for a long time, “To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.” At that time I was in search for a code to live by and this with its undertones of Zen (which I was also exploring via books) was intensely appealing.
The third was my physical and emotional response to photographs that moved me, it was similar to my reactions to drawings, my earliest obsession. A line expressed perfectly or a photograph imbued with atmosphere always felt the same — it hurt. The pain was an expression of longing to know intimately what it feels like to have been the creator of such beauty.
What excites you the most about photojournalism?
Seeing the world from a new perspective and to be enlightened because of it. The triggers that cause you to see things differently could be driven by one or all of these qualities: visual — the way a scene or the subject is captured; emotional — the story and how it is told; and informative — the information is so new that it is investigative, bringing new light to a subject.
How did you get your first big break?
A personal project of mine, The Vanishing, which documented the impact of the construction of the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, was published in the Independent Magazine. The publication, part of a weekend supplement to the newspaper, was well known in the UK and many parts of the world for its design and photography. After I had decided to do the project of my own back I made appointments with picture editors of well-known publications in the hope of selling the story. I had already published other stories in a few other magazines but this was my first big break in a highly respected magazine. I got a big spread and the front cover.
How does the Traces series project come about? How long does it take to complete the project?
In 2006, I began to explore the most industrialized regions of China, from the rust belt of the north-east to the cities of Shanxi province, famous for their coal. The following year, with the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, I arrived in Linfen just before the week-long Chinese New Year holiday. For the country’s 150,000,000 migrant workers, mostly peasants escaping the harsh and poverty-stricken life of the countryside, the holiday was especially important: it was the only time they were able to journey home to their families, often in faraway provinces. The urbanisation of China has provided better-paid jobs, and these new workers, mostly men, travel far from home to become labourers doing dangerous jobs at construction sites, factories and mines.
Reports of accidents in coal mines and concerns about pollution were common and the government, particularly keen to avoid bad press, took action to avoid any risk of major incidents that would lead to social unrest during the holiday period. Many mines and plants that were heavy users of coal were closed down. The sites I visited were often empty, a landscape of dust-coated industrial machinery. Wandering around these desolate landscapes devoid of life, I became aware of a new perspective. I gradually began to shift my focus from the stories of the people who worked there onto a broader view — focusing instead on the landscapes — since it was in the marks left behind by man’s industry that we could glimpse into the environmental cost of humanity’s material desires, a system that we in our globalised world are all complicit.
I’m fascinated by Traces II: The Source in particular. Can you share the thought/creative process working on this series?
Traces II is my series on China’s Yellow River. Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than this great river. It is to the Chinese what the Nile is to Egypt — the cradle of its 5000-year civilisation. Today, its decades-long environmental decline underlines the dark side of the country’s rapid development far beyond the 150 million people it directly sustains. It is an environmental crisis leading to scarcity of the one resource no nation can live without — water.
In my travels throughout the region, I was struck by how these landscapes, beautifully distressed, always looked eternally static. An illusion in our perception of time. China’s advancement significantly transformed vast regions over the decades. The landscape was never ever static, it was forever a manifestation of past events. Development, industrialisation, environmental policies, natural geological changes and climate change are all actors etching their marks on the landscape. With some research and insight, perhaps it is possible to see past the present scene to catch an impression of how these landscapes came to be.
My work examines forces that affect but rarely seen in action within the image. By exploring the Yellow River’s place in Chinese culture and history and China’s emergence as a major economic power, I seek resonance with romantic notions of past and present. The search is for a gentle beauty, but also for muted signs of a landscape in throes of transition. It is the dissonance created between these bucolic yet ambivalent scenes, set against historical, economic and scientific narratives accompanying them that interests me. My hope is together they connect viewers to the front lines of climate change, where the environmental crisis underway, isn’t always easy to see.
Have your Traces project getting any attention from China government?
Parts of my Traces work has been published in Chinese publications. I’m not aware that it has gained attention from the Chinese government
How do you choose personal projects and commissioned assignment?
Personal projects are what I choose to do because of personal interests and goals. Assignments tend to have a much broader scope. I’m lucky that many of my assignments have been interesting to me personally. This was less true when I was starting out.
Can you share the experience of being a jury in Word Press Photo 2020?
I was impressed by their professionalism and dedication to upholding standards in the photojournalism industry. The World Press Foundation do everything to make your work there easy, we were only required to focus on judging images. Our votes were anonymous and the ethics committee checked successful entries for their veracity and fulfilment of competition rules. I really enjoyed the process and it offered an insight into the process.
You are also a regular tutor for Obscura Photo Festivals, what do you think the development of photography in this region in terms of talent and growth?
In recent years Southeast Asian photographers have had some success globally, but photography as an ‘eco-system’ in the region is still nascent in its development. Festivals in the region like Obscura Festival of Photography are key to helping cultivate this ‘eco-system’. They help the nurturing of a community, both the photographic and the larger public, where the cultural perception of photography as an important medium (like writing) for engaging serious thought on issues becomes more widely excepted and appreciated. The structural support of festivals and a more mature cultural perception of photography within society is just the beginning, and I hope over time will help develop the economic structures needed to sustain its regional practitioners. By this I mean, a more developed photography industry that values photographic authorship, and its accompanying organisations from publications to photo agencies and galleries to museums, and the accompanying talent pool of picture editors, curators etc. within.
Over time, photography may take a more significant role in the region’s culture as a voice to be heard beyond its obvious commercial uses. This is important, as much of the photographic documentation we have today from our collective past has been by visitors to the region. Whilst these works serve an important function as a lens into the past, it is essential today that the region has its voice too. Photographic stories today are after all the potential historical documentation of tomorrow – and there’s a need to develop these support structures if we are to have a stake in our collective history for future generations.
As the world turns to look more at Southeast Asia, because of its growing importance economically and politically, there will increasingly be a greater desire to understand the region. There is a rich diversity of stories that need to be told in the region for the region, but also globally. Southeast Asian photographers are in a prime position to tell those stories, but their stories will need to be seen beyond the region so as to be part of a larger and richer global conversation.
Covid19 pandemic has changed our life tremendously, how do you cope with this sudden change?
At least for now, I feel fortunate. I’m not on my own, I have my partner, and our families are safe. Its made work difficult but I try to see it as an opportunity to rest but also to invest my time in personal development, and improve my skills in areas I feel need attention. I think the pandemic affects other people differently and some are less fortunate, so my thoughts go out to those who are finding this time particularly challenging.
What is your advice to a young photographer?
Photography is not an end unto itself, it’s a language and skill like writing is. You write to communicate and therefore you need a subject. Photography is the same — it is a license to be curious. Follow ‘curiosity’ to where it leads you. The desire and willingness to deepen your knowledge about your curiosities is potentially the reason you find the stories you want to photograph. Perseverance overcomes creative plateaus while consistency, deliberate practice over time sharpens your skill. It is simple yet hard to achieve. Persevere and be consistent if you want to excel.