Ian Teh is an Augustman Men Of The Year awardee in the year 2014, as well as a contributor to National Geographic.
On the 22nd of June, National Geographic posted a series of photographs that suggested a grim outlook for Malaysia, which expressed little hope as to finding a way out of the pandemic. The post garnered more than 300,000 likes and nearly 3,000 comments, the majority of which were Malaysians who felt that the pics accurately depicted their defeated spirit. These numbers, don’t take into the account the number of shares, posts and retweets as Malaysia expressed their dismay over what seems to be a losing battle.
The week was a tough one as stricter measures were implemented on to an already locked down state, with no indication of any relaxation in the foreseeable future. The photographs and the accompanying caption were by Ian Teh who is part of National Geographic’s stable of photographers on their Instragram account. For Ian, the fact that the post resonated with so many came as a bit of surprise. But it served to reinforce that he was not alone in his view of the situation.
“It confirmed,” he says in an interview with August Man, “the extent of the rakyat’s sacrifice to help overcome the pandemic.” In particular, those who have spent much of the year, adhering to the rules. The reaction, he adds, “also simultaneously expressed a deep-seated frustration at the steep escalation of Covid-19 cases and the public perception of how the country has handled it recently.”
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The photos were intended to present a different view of KL, an “unnatural stillness.”
“There is an eerie desolation to our manufactured concrete environment that usually thrives with the buzz of human activity,” he explains. The caption, he describes as “essentially a summary” of recent events. “A way to take stock of the national sentiment within the context of current circumstances that have unfolded.”
The photographs reflect Ian’s perspective as a photographer, which is to capture social, environmental and political issues. As seen in series like The Vanishing: Altered Landscapes and Displaced Lives (1999-2003), which documents the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River while work like Dark Clouds (2006-2008), Tainted Landscapes (2007-2008) and Traces, examine the consequences of China’s booming economy.
Given the subject matter of his work, it is inevitable that the global disruption brought about by the pandemic has impacted his work. He is unable to take on assignments but has taken the opportunity to reflect and pursue some of his personal goals.
“I recognise that I speak from a position of privilege as there are many others who are less fortunate who have struggled during this challenging period,” he says.
Despite the challenging circumstances facing photographers at the moment, Ian reminds us of the roles that photographers play during times like this.
“In a period where global travel is severely restricted, photographs and the press are the windows from which we stay informed and view the outside world,” he says. “It’s easy to overlook, but photography is an essential tool in helping the collective ‘us’ makes sense of this incredible period of our current global history.”
Which is what Ian did with his post. The current lockdown, he explains, was the catalyst and as we entered into it for third time, the photographer believed it was “the right moment for another pause to reflect on where are today and the events that have taken place since our first lockdown in March of 2020.”
Recently he depicted the current state of several parts in Kuala Lumpur, now devoid of the hype of activity that typically dominated these areas. A closed school, stores that were shut, an empty bus station – these were among the scenes that were captured. In his caption, Ian considered the impact of the emergency imposed in January and the more severe lockdown measures introduced in June and the impact it has had on our economy and our society.
“In the last nine weeks of the current national lockdown, Malaysia’s total cases have risen 77% since its commencement,” he wrote in the post dated July 30th. “With at least 150,000 small and medium-sized enterprises shutting down, the economy has taken a beating, resulting in 1.2 million job losses since the pandemic broke out last year.”
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Unable to embark on his usual travels for work, Ian who is currently based in Kuala Lumpur, has spent the past year and a half researching new projects and working on various proposals. His also in the midst of editing his work on the Yellow River Basin in China. Describing it as “long-term,” work, Ian’s photography of the Yellow River – once a “symbol of enduring glory”- explores the “dark side of China’s economic miracle,” he says in his artistic statement. “I have always been struck by how the nation’s focus on getting ahead has marginalised other concerns.”
And like others, much of his time has revolved around Zoom meetings, from conducting online photography workshops to online jurying for the World-Press Photo. It’s also an “excellent time” to do research and write proposals, shared Ian Teh.