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Interview: Ian Teh

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‘Woman Walking’ by Ian Teh, as featured in Britain.

Ian Teh is a multi-award-winning photographer whose images of post-industrial landscapes in China, ‘Traces’, appeared in issue 111 of the magazine, Going Back, and who now features in the art showcase of the current issue, Britain, with the ‘Woman Walking’ (above). He spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about how landscape can act as a ‘mirror’, his project to circumnavigate the coast of Britain, encountering racial tensions, embedding yourself in a scene and why he always takes his camera to the pub.

TH: The perspective of your image in Britain seems very mobile, even anonymous, as though the subject doesn’t even see there’s a camera there. You’ve taken a highly methodical approach to perspective in the past – your work in China for example, with the high vintages of Traces and the first-person immersive experience of Dark Clouds. Did you make a resolution to embed yourself almost invisibly in the darker side of British life?

IT: This is actually from an early body of work called East End. At that time I was still very much searching for a way to define my visual expression. I’ve always felt that photography is very precise at describing a moment but it struggles to communicate ideas, its strength lies in its ability to suggest thus delivering an emotion or mood. This in turn encourages the viewer to take a line of thought I lived next to Brick Lane many years back and at that time, around 2000, the area was starting to go through many changes. and travel with it, bringing them outside the boundaries of the frame and the moment it was taken. In this work, it was a portrait of the East End of London. I lived next to Brick Lane many years back and at that time, around 2000, the area was starting to go through many changes. One could see the trajectory the area would take, it was gradually becoming gentrified although it was still rough around the edges. That made the place interesting and because it was one of the poorest boroughs in London that was right next to the City, the richest square mile, it made the subject even more engaging. I approached it as a photo essay trying to show all the different aspects of the neighbourhood, I shot beyond the immediate surroundings to show how neighbourhoods started to change as we travelled further East. Whilst I tried to play with the colours as a way to link my narrative, the approach was a lot looser compared to Traces and Dark Clouds which was conceptually more challenging to produce.

In answer to your question as to whether I embed myself and appear to be invisible – I decided that I prefer to act as a conduit for the audience. As if they are there themselves without the ‘middle-man’. I want them to engage with the subject on a more personal level, gauging their own reactions and not feeling as though I am telling them how to feel.

This photograph captures the current of racism that runs through our society, but also the way that such forces can be strangely faceless, slippery. Do you think we’re a country that finds it hard to grapple with its demons and is this something you want to explore in your work?

Sure, I think so, but I also think that we have come a long way throughout history. Also who are we comparing ourselves to? I think if we compare ourselves to other countries we are not doing too badly but that’s no reason to be complacent. Cases like the Stephen Lawrence enquiry show that the issue of racism is still very present in many segments of society. Situations like this and other forms of racism reveal a deep-rooted fear for those who feel that their lives are adversely affected by people different from themselves, this in turn prevents them from assessing the facts rationally. In this project it was something I wanted to address, but not necessarily an issue I felt driven to explore exclusively. I submitted this image to Granta because I felt this subject is incredibly relevant in our current time of economic hardship. Privation can bring out the best in people but sometimes fear can also bring out the worst. For me, racism will be part of a number of issues I want to address in a project.

It seems you’re interested in tracing political currents through the surfaces and textures of modern life, in this case a graffitied wall. How much are you conscious of politicised symbols like hoodies when working and trying to subvert them?

I would say I am conscious but I don’t necessarily think about subverting wilfully. The process of looking for meaningful images in real life means that I don’t always have complete control, the process is candid. Instead what I look for are opportunities, where interesting juxtapositions can serve to highlight or challenge an issue. But in the end it’s up to the viewer to make his or her mind up about my work. The pictures I take are fly-on-the-wall and open to interpretation.

In your series The Island, you circumnavigate the coast of Britain and captured the life that you witnessed at the edge of country. Would you say that being an island is something that informs our mentality as a people a great deal?

I think so. When I started that project – and it’s still not complete – I was interested in the idea of how Britain although being part of Europe is often seen as somehow slightly separate. The process of looking for meaningful images in real life means that I don’t always have complete control, the process is candid. Even economically Britain shows its separateness by not being part of the Euro. Rightly or wrongly it feels that this individuality is emphasised because geographically it is an island and apart from the continent. We are hardly any distance from France but the cultures couldn’t be more different. This interested me, I wanted to find out if I travelled along its coastline whether I could create a portrait of the country where its character would be revealed. Defining the country by its coastline and missing many major cities will be a challenge, I’m not sure what kind of portrait I’ll get, but that’s what makes it an engaging process.

Does ‘Britain’ to you suggest landscape, as opposed to the people? Have we seen major changes to our landscape recently, do you think?

In a way they are mirrors of each other. The landscape, especially when it has been urbanised or has had man’s presence is a reflection of the prevailing culture, and culture is expressed through the population. I think the biggest change for me is that I feel society is more polarised, I think that the middle classes and the working classes are having a much harder time than ever before and our governments are not able to address these issues convincingly. On my travels in some of the coastal areas of Britain I found there were plenty of £1 shops. The success of this kind of business highlights the difficulties ordinary people are facing but at the same time last year top directors in major corporate firms were awarding themselves an average pay rise of fifty percent. My feeling when I see this is that there is a discord in our society, the tools and institutions we have put in place to protect our communities aren’t working or they are being eroded by short term objectives set out by the state.

Can you tell us some stories about your encounters taking this and other pictures of Britain?

My experience has been varied. I’ve had people come up to me and do outrageous things because they were drunk or in a party mood and at other times it can completely flip into something less genial. On one occasion in Blackpool, I was in a pub with a friend, both of us were collaborating on a project together. We stood in a corner having a drink and surveying the scene in front of us. It was a Saturday night and the atmosphere was festive, many people were just visiting for the weekend, some were on stag or hen nights. Perhaps it was because we were the only two people who had cameras hanging round our necks that two women walked up to us and casually asked us if we had fun film in the camera. The puzzled look on our faces made them rephrase the question, ‘Will you take a picture of us if we pose for you?’ Sensing a photographic opportunity we said yes. They then turned around and with their backs to us they calmly dropped their trousers and waited for us patiently to photograph their bare bottoms. After we took their picture they came over to shake our hands and then they walked back through this crowded bar back to their group of friends as if nothing unusual just happened. One of the chaps standing next to us said to us, ‘Next time I’m going to come into a pub with a camera round my neck.’ ■

You can also see Ian Teh at the following event:

The Hospital Club Granta Salon: This is Britain
7 June, 7 p.m., The Loft Lounge at The Hospital Club, 24 Endell Street, London WC2H 9HQ. Call The Hospital Club for bookings and more information: 020 7170 9100.

Join us for our first arts salon at the Hospital Club. Mischka Henner, Yinka Shonibare and Ian Teh in conversation with Granta artistic director Michael Salu and deputy editor Ellah Allfrey about what British identity means today and how it is expressed in their work in the art showcase in Granta's Britain edition and beyond.

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