Over the last twenty years, China’s economy has grown exponentially—and as photographer Ian Teh documents in his January/February 2013 Orion portfolio, “Sacrifice Dynasty,” much of that growth has its roots in the country’s rural coal fields. We asked Teh, whose photographs have appeared in Time, The New Yorker, and Granta, about his travels in China, and what lies behind the country’s stunning new success.
Tell us a bit about your travels in China. What brought you there?
I first visited China in 1995—I went there because I wanted a totally new experience in a country I had never been to before, where I had little knowledge of the language. At the same time, I was curious about a familial connection: my grandfather, whom I had never met, came from China. That first journey was an incredible personal experience for me, and I was fascinated by the changes that the nation was undergoing, the palpable excitement from its people who were hungry to learn from outside influences. Over the years, I continued to return, and I became interested in how China’s evolution was affecting its people.
I had already covered the massive displacement of 1.5 million people living along the banks of the Yangtze River during the years of 1999 through 2003 in my project The Vanishing: Altered Landscapes and Displaced Lives. After that series, I began to look at the catalysts that seem to make the eastern seaboard cities expand at exponential rates: in the end, beyond political and economic planning, coal and an abundance of cheap labor seem to be the raw ingredients necessary for China’s success. And all this comes at a great cost, particularly to China’s environment and its people’s health.
Most of the images in this series were taken in rural China. How would you characterize the difference between rural and urban China, in terms of issues of pollution?
Many of the rural areas I visited in China were blessed with deep coal deposits. Although agricultural land and coal-related industry used to coexist, the country’s recent decades of breakneck economic growth has meant that former farmland has very quickly given way to heavy industry. It’s worth remembering that some of the coal provinces I explored are easily as large as countries—the environmental impact of these industries is by no means small.
How might a Chinese person react to these photographs? Are the effects of coal use a political issue in China?
There is a growing concern among the Chinese about environmental issues. Many have seen the work as necessary to highlighting some of the important issues affecting the country—something that the government, in its focus on economic growth, has not done enough of in the past.
There are, however, some who see environmental concern as a form of Western hypocrisy: the West had its industrial revolution, surely it’s time to give others a chance to catch up? There is also the view that many of the things produced in China end up in the West, so in a way we have also exported our pollution to the East.
There is truth in these views. But to put it simply, China’s growth and its environmental issues are just too big to ignore. Whatever China chooses to do in the future will increasingly have a global impact—a sustainable way forward is an absolute necessity for the entire world.
In telling this story, you got closer to the world economy’s power source than many of us ever will. What did it feel like to walk through these mining sites and industrial towns?
These small towns and cities are growing incredibly fast because of the wealth that comes through coal mining and its related industries. People are benefitting economically on the one hand, but, on the other hand, there is a huge rise in respiratory disease related to pollution—some cities are so bad that the grime and smell of soot and smog were always present on my clothes. My hands would turn a dull grey after being outdoors for just half an hour.
But it was also oddly exciting to be in these places—these industries exist on a scale I had never witnessed before. In the early days, when I first started the project, I felt like I was wandering through a post-apocalyptic, surreal world.
What is life like for the workers depicted here? Who are they? Where do they come from, and where do they wish to go?
Many have come from farming communities, where life is particularly hard. They leave in search of better-paid jobs that are often also more dangerous. But many plan to return to their homes, once they’ve saved enough for their families.
“Sacrifice Dynasty” is comprised of both portraiture and landscape photography. What kinds of feelings and ideas do you hope to transmit to the viewer with these different modes?
I wanted to tell a story in several layers, via the industrial workspace, the worker, and the afflicted landscape. I attempted to capture the daily reality of a worker in his environment, emphasizing their anonymity in these large spaces through my compositions. Then, I contrasted those scenes by making portraits that I hope serve as a reminder that these individuals are people—people with their own aspirations, caught up in something much larger than themselves. Finally, I wanted the panoramic images to show the raw impact of industrialization on the landscape. These otherworldly scenes of the Chinese industrial hinterland, its afflictions and scars, were to be the record of our material desires.
Ian Teh’s portfolio in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion, “Sacrifice Dynasty,” is available in print and digital editions. Go ahead, subscribe!
Photograph courtesy of Ian Teh.