“The bus from China’s most polluted city takes a newly built highway heading south towards the Yellow River. The dust is everywhere in Linfen. You can feel it on your fingers as something dry and abrasive that you would like to rub away but never can. It coats every surface, from leaves and crops to the buildings and factories lining both sides of the road. It floats in the air creating a fine veil of light ochre that tinges the passing scenery with the same monochromatic hue. A few years ago this would have been farmland. Now the view is repetitive, rhythmic in its cycles of factories, construction sites and fields of crops with dirt tracks leading deep into the landscape. All available space is used for either development or cultivation, with little or no separation between the fields and the factories that produce noxious waste.
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. It was not until the following year, with the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, that I first 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 is especially important: this is the only time they are able to make the long journey home to their families. The urbanization of China has provided new and better-paid jobs, and these new workers, mostly men, travel far from home to become factory workers, miners, construction workers and laborers, often doing the most dangerous jobs. Reports of accidents in coal mines and concerns about pollution had become common and the government, particularly keen to avoid bad news in the press, took action to avoid any risk of major incidents that could lead to social unrest during the holiday.
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 was struck by a new perspective. I began to concentrate not on the individual realities of the people who worked there but on the broader view I was seeing, the results of just one stage in the manufacturing process, a complex chain of events in which we in our globalized world are all complicit. Ultimately, the brilliant glare from China’s metropolises can be traced back to the hinterland and its migrant workers. There, as in all of China, I see the dream of a nation, the cost and what is deferred for future generations.”
Ian Teh is a Malaysian born Chinese photographer. He has received several honors, in 2018 he was awarded a travel grant from the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting and presented his work on climate change at the prestigious 2018 National Geographic Photography Seminar. He has published three monographs, Undercurrents (2008), Traces (2011) and Confluence (2014). His work is part of the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) and the Hood Museum in the USA. Selected solo shows include the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York in 2004, Flowers in London in 2011 and the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam in 2012. Teh’s work has been published internationally in magazines such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek and Granta. Teh is a member of the British agency, Panos Pictures.
Photography Friday is a regular feature from Shanghaiist in association with Photography of China, Marine Cabos’s fantastic platform about photography and photographers in China.