Photographing China’s Industrial Heartland

Award-winning photographer Ian Teh’s latest work, TRACES: dark clouds is currently on display at Harvard’s Fairbank Center as part of our Environment in Asia series. Here, Ian Teh explains how otherworldly scenes of the Chinese industrial hinterland inspire his photographs, and tell a story of environmental exploitation and material desires.

Workers at a steel and iron plant. Steel and iron production is one of the most energy-intensive industries worldwide, its use of coal and coke as the primary fuel for production means that it has the highest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in any industry globally. Tonghua, China. Photograph: Ian Teh

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.

Workers working at a coking plant. The production of coke releases highly toxic substances into the atmosphere that are often carcinogenic. Workers in these industrial plants are often directly exposed to the fumes that are emitted from this industrial process. Benxi, China. Photograph: Ian Teh

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. China’s urbanization 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 only on the individual realities of the people who worked in these places but on a broader view that I was witnessing. These realities and landscapes hark back to the roots of a nation’s manufacturing process, a cycle within a complex chain of events where we, in our globalized world, are all complicit.

An employee from a coal mine plays pool late in the night after work. Tai Yuan, China. Photograph: Ian Teh

I pursued two simultaneous routes as I compiled images of the coal industry. “Traces” is an exploration of the otherworldly scenes in the Chinese industrial hinterland, landscapes that seem to be a repository for all of man’s endeavors; a record of our material desires. In contrast, the images that make up “Dark Clouds” evolved into an intimate chronicle of daily life in these environments. From the epic to the quotidian, these interleaving chapters represent two overlapping realities: the human experience of the individual, the migrant worker, and vistas that intimate the existence of a much larger economic and ideological process, one whose momentum we struggle to control, a symbol our collective ambitions.

Workers at a steel and iron plant. Tonghua, China. Photograph: Ian Teh

In the end, the brilliant glare from China’s metropolises can be traced back to the country’s hinterland and its migrant workers. There, as in all of China, I see the dream of a nation, the cost now as well as that which is hidden and deferred for future generations.

Ian Teh’s photographs are on display at the Fairbank Center from January 15 to February 15, 2017. A special event with Ian Teh will be held at the Fairbank Center on January 30.