Dutch photographer Martin Roemers won the 1st prize in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2015 for his series, Metropolis, which documents street life in “mega-cities”, defined as urban areas that are home to more than 10 million inhabitants. Here we present an extended slideshow of this project, as well as an interview with the photographer.
Mega-cities: How do people deal with each other, as well as with the stress, noise, chaos and sensory overload of living daily with more than 10 million other people in the same city?
According to a United Nations’ report:
“In 2014, there were 28 mega-cities
worldwide, home to 453 million people or about 12 percent of the world’s urban
dwellers. Of today’s 28
mega-cities, sixteen are located in Asia, four in Latin
America, three each in Africa and Europe, and two in Northern America. By 2030,
the world is projected to have 41 mega-cities with 10 million inhabitants or more.”
Martin Roemers set out to document more than 20 of today’s mega-cities. His
highly-detailed long-exposure photographs are jam-packed with detail, and
reveal bustling, chaotic, crowded scenes of everyday life in the 21st century.
Always taken with a long exposure from a slightly elevated perspective, looking down and out, we only begin to comprehend the complexities of so many people attempting to live and work and move around in such densely populated urban streets.
Indeed, despite the fact that Roemers uses “old-fashioned” large-format
analogue cameras and film, he is documenting modern life and revealing an
updated view of what street photography can mean in the age of mega-cities. The
images are blurred with movement and flow of the masses, only to be punctuated
by sharp images of buildings, bridges and some solitary, temporarily motionless
people who appear still as rocks amidst the visual chaos—a roaring stream of
humanity, traffic, tangled wires and pulsing neon advertisements.
Roemers won first place in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2015. LensCulture editor Jim Casper spoke to him via Skype about this series. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.
LC: This is such a massive project — covering more than 20 megacities around the world. How did you get the idea to try to accomplish such an audacious goal?
MR: The idea for my Metropolis project started a long time ago — before it was even a project in my own mind. Earlier in my career, I did a lot of projects about war and conflict, specifically the results of war. So without being a war photographer, I made projects about the consequences for people, the consequences for architecture, for landscape, and so on.
At the same time, I’ve always been interested in urban culture and city life, and many years ago when I was in Bombay I made some personal pictures that became the seeds of this much larger project.
What I found really very interesting about Bombay is that it’s a very large, very nice city and there’s so much chaos and energy and hustle and bustle — yet the thing is that nobody seems to mind that it’s so crowded and that there’s absolutely no personal space. The smells, the noise, the crowds of people — that was actually the first inspiration for this work. So I started making large-format photographs in Indian cities without calling it “Metropolis.” That was in 2007, where I was shooting in Bombay and in Kolkata.
In 2009, a report was published by the UN
Population Fund and they stated that since that year — and that was really a
significant moment — that more than half of the world’s population was living in cities,
and they also predicted that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will
be living in cities. But of course, if you do urban photography, there are a
thousand possibilities, so I decided to focus on only the super [mega] cities, the
largest cities in the world now. The UN defined “mega-cities” as cities with
populations of 10 million and more. That was exactly the angle I needed to make
this project bigger — because I already knew that I wanted to do more with this
LC: Did you try to get funding or an assignment to do this work, or did you do it on your own initiative?
MR: I applied for some funding and invested my own money, and I started with complete focus in 2010. Then in 2011, I won a World Press Photo Award for an image from this work in progress. I was really just at the beginning, and winning the award was a very good thing — I was not even halfway but it was a good stimulant to continue this work and do it worldwide.
LC: Did you have an overall strategy to tackle this project?
MR: When I started, the UN had a list of 23 cities (most of them are in Asia) and I followed that list. I went to every city for about one week each. Before I went to each city, I looked for a foreign assistant, a fixer, who were mostly young photographers. I picked them because they could understand what I was looking for and they could help me find the kind of places I was looking for: crowded places that had high vantage points, as I needed this elevation to give an overview of the city and the crowds of people.
I asked them to make lists for me of where we could find those places and then they sent me pictures or links of Google street views. But really, most of the time, the best thing to do the research was to have a car in this specific city and to drive around and check out these locations. Only by being there could I really tell if it’s interesting for me. And then, I had to come back when the light was good. When you’re in a city in Pakistan or in Bangladesh, the intense sun is always shining. That means the middle of the day, with its harsh light, isn’t ideal for making an interesting photo.
But yes, I needed a strategy. First, I had to find each location and it had to be very crowded most of the time. I also needed elevation — Is there a roof I can stand on? Is there a bridge or a balcony or can
I shoot from an opened window? When there was nothing available in some cases,
I also used a ladder, which was especially helpful in the cities where it’s a little hard to talk your way into a building.
At the good time of the day [for lighting] you have a maximum of two hours or so, then you have to make your photo in this time frame. If possible, not only on one location but maybe on two (if they are not too far away from each other). So that’s how we proceeded, day by day, until the end of the week.
LC: Did you “know” right away when you took a great photo?
MR: Since it’s analog photography, and I couldn’t immediately see the results of a picture, I was never really sure whether I captured a good photo or not. And because of the long exposure time needed for this technique, there are a lot of things happening, and a lot of things that can go wrong or right. For example, when I’m on a roof and I have everything in position and framed in my camera, I observe the territory carefully. That way I know where my image starts at the left and I know where it ends to the right. So I’m looking at who or what is coming into the frame and what’s going out. If there’s somebody interesting there, she has to stand still for a few seconds otherwise they will just be a blur. So you’re waiting for that and I mean how many elements can you follow at one time? Like five or six or so. And so you watch these elements and once you think that everything has fallen into its place, then you press the button. But at the same time, there’s a lot more happening which you can only see when you have developed the images and then you know what you really have.
LC: From an aesthetic point of view, tell me some of the
considerations you had when you were choosing your sites and when you
decided that the right elements were in the frame.
Well, I wanted to show that the growth of these cities are a consequence of economic
migration — a city is a magnet for people and the city provides a lot of
chances and it’s a center of economy and so it’s an opportunity to find jobs
and to make money. But that’s not true for everyone. So you also see that many of the
people in my photographs end up as part of an informal economy where they work
on the streets, informal trades or sometimes begging. They live in slum
areas or are homeless. Those are some of the things I wanted to involve in
At the same time I also look for what is characteristic of the city. For example, I know that Kolkata is one of the only cities in the world which still has these hand-drawn rickshaws as well as taxies, buses and trains. So I looked for a place in the city where I know there is a lot of traffic of rickshaws and I looked for a position at a crossing where I know that people and traffic have to wait because a train is passing every five minutes. So I get prepared for that and then it’s a waiting game. For that specific location, I was there for two days.
For this photo, the photographer stayed in the same spot for two days until all of the elements came together so perfectly. Madan Street and Lenin Sarani, Chandni Chowk, Kolkata, India, 2008 © Martin Roemers
On the other hand, there are also photos where something happens and it’s kind of a coincidence. For example, Times Square in New York: when I was there, I was planning not to go to Times Square. It’s been photographed so much, I just thought I’d skip it. But when I passed it, I saw that it really was an amazing place and it’s so metropolis. So I decided to give it a go.
And when I was there, out of the blue, there was this
very small demonstration and these people who went there — It’s a different
kind of a picture of Times Square because it got political, and it was a chance
for me to show political speech in an urban project (and not only something
about economic migration).
LC: That’s great! Then there’s another photo that has really captured my imagination. It looks like a group of men praying under an overpass?
Yes, that was in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s a mixed town of Christians and Muslims,
and on Fridays some mosques are so full and crowded at the time of prayer that there is not enough space for everyone. So, some people pray on the streets.
Muslim taxi drivers in Lagos, Nigeria stop to make the Friday prayer in this mega-city. Broad Street, Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria, 2015 © Martin Roemers
LC: That, for me, is probably the most surprising of the group for some reason. It amazes me to think how people adapt to situations in a mega-city — the idea of taking your shoes off and having a spiritual moment in the midst of this clutter and clamor and smells and noise and congestion! It’s just a really startling contrast.
MR: It is, it is. And practically, these people you see, you see a lot of taxis there? They are all taxi drivers. This is their hang out place. They wait there and they eat there and then they also do their prayers there. I learned a lot just by roaming around each city with my local fixer, who could explain things like that to me.
A great book of this project is just now being released by the publisher, and
you have a really big show coming up in Amsterdam at Huis Marseille in December. But still — what are your dreams or
hopes for this project beyond those two successes?
MR: I’d like the work to be shown more widely, and of course, the best would be for this work to be shown in every city where I was. And if it could be shown in exhibitions on the street itself, of course, that’s what I would want to do in every one of the 23 cities.
—Martin Roemers, interviewed by Jim Casper
Photographs by Martin Roemers
Introductions by Ricky Burdett, Azu Nwagbogu, and Els Barents
Publisher: Hatje Cantz
Hardcover, 27 x 34 cm., 144 pages, 84 photos in color