According to United Nations’ estimates, there are more than one billion squatters living today—close to one out of every six persons on earth. This number is expected to double to two billion by 2030. And then, by the middle of the century, there will be three billion squatters.
“Future Cities” is a collection of photographs documenting informal settlements and unplanned developments in the world’s cities. These communities take on many forms, but they share a common history. People, mostly migrants from rural areas, come to a city in search of work. In need of affordable housing that does not exist, they claim a small piece of unused land and build a home. Other residents follow and the end result is a new community within the city.
Governments around the world have failed to take responsibility for this massive urban migration. Many of the world’s squatters exist in a legal vacuum. They work outside of the official economy and their homes exist on very tenuously held ground.
Although squatters face many challenges, these settlements are extremely creative and vibrant places. The people living in informal communities throughout the world don’t need handouts nor do they need people to tell them how to live. In fact, their needs, across the world, are usually quite specific. Foremost, squatters need a pathway to property ownership, which will give them a real stake in the communities they are building. They need access to financial services (credit in particular), so that they can leverage their home ownership into capital that can be used to start a business. Once given the chance to settle, they need basic utilities and city services, such as clean water and electricity, not to mention the chance to seek education for their children.
Many of these needs are currently not being met. Worldwide, cities are struggling with how to deal with this rapid influx of rural migrants and the numbers will only continue to grow unless intelligent policies are adopted.
Noah Addis is a ceaseless traveler and explorer of the world. While he loves photography, he particularly enjoys using it as an excuse to dive deeply into the things that excite his curiosity, across the globe. Managing editor Alexander Strecker contacted him by email and he had this to say about his work and approach to documentary photography—
LC: Can you discuss “Future Cities” a bit more? How did the project begin?
NA: I first became aware of the issue of informal urban development during a trip to Lagos, Nigeria in 1999. It was my first foreign assignment and I remember passing miles and miles of these communities on my way from the airport into town. We were there for an unrelated story, but I was able to visit some of these communities and talk to the people who lived in them. At the time I had no idea that so many people in the world live on land they don’t own with no land tenure and no real security.
These communities are often portrayed in the media as being full of crime and full of problems. And there are problems in squatter settlements, to be sure. Simple things that many of us take for granted—sanitation, electricity, clean water—prove to be a daily struggle. But beyond the problems, I have been more surprised at how normal life is in these places. The vast majority of these residents come to the city looking for a better life. Many have jobs and work very hard to support their families. Housing is a basic human need and it is simply this that they are struggling to attain.
This projects has taken me to communities in São Paulo and Rio, Lima, Mexico City, Mumbai, Manila, Cairo and Dhaka. I plan to visit four or five more cities before I’m through.
LC: Many of your photographs are taken from a distance, with a landscape/architectural feel. How did you settle on this approach—for example, have you tried telling the stories of individuals through portraiture as well?
NA: The project has evolved considerably since I started photographing in 2009. Originally, I was working in more of a traditional photojournalistic manner—running around with a small camera, looking for moments. But as the project progressed, I became more interested in looking at the architecture and landscape of these places. It’s fascinating to see how they are built. They grow almost organically to suit the needs of the people living in them. I’ve done some portraits along the way, but the landscape of these communities is so very dense and full of information, I decided I would let the spaces speak for themselves.
Indeed, I feel the project evolves a bit each time I travel to a new city. My most recent work in Dhaka and in Manila, for example, includes more of a human element within the frame, although the photographs are still cityscapes. In Dhaka, in particular, I realized that it’s impossible to talk about informal development without also looking at the informal economy. Thus, I began photographing informal markets in addition to the residential spaces.
LC: This project took you all over the world—could you describe the process of organizing the trips, finding/researching the sites, getting permissions etc. I think such information could be useful to aspiring photographers who don’t even know how to begin undertaking such large-scale projects.
NA: Making photographs is the easy part in many ways; it’s certainly the most fun. But I also enjoy the logistics and research as well—if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t still be doing it!
I do a lot of advance scouting using Google Earth and street view where it’s available. I also try to talk to people who work in development or study urban issues in the cities I’m visiting. And finally, I talk to my fixer to make a plan for my visit. A good fixer is worth his or her weight in gold. Occasionally I’ll have a fixer scout locations for me ahead of time, but I prefer to do it myself whenever possible. These communities are so interesting and diverse that I never really know ahead of time what I’m looking for.
In my experience, it’s much easier to work overseas than it is to photograph in the United States. For example, in many places I’ve worked, when I wanted to photograph from the roof of a building, all I had to do was ask the building management for permission. It was usually granted to me on the spot.
Funding is really the biggest challenge. I stay in cheap hotels and try to save where I can, but there are still significant costs involved. I funded the first few trips myself and since then I’ve been fortunate enough to receive fellowships from the Independence Foundation in Philadelphia and the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation. I’m seeking more funding to finish the project.
LC: How do you balance research versus picture-making in your work?
NA: For better or worse, I spend much more time doing research than making photographs. I think it’s really important to know a lot about the subject when one works on any kind of photographic project that’s documentary in nature. Some of that knowledge can come from advance research, reading, watching documentary films and using online resources. After all that’s done, the most valuable information comes from visiting the places and spending time with the people who live there.
LC: As you’re working on such information-rich topics, what parts are better conveyed by pictures and what is better communicated in words?
NA: The problem with photography is that a picture is inherently ambiguous. It is much easier to tell a story in words than in pictures—a writer can express a complex idea in a relatively small number of words. Photography can express complex ideas too but it’s much more difficult. And I think it helps if the photographer has done the research and put in the time and the hard work to understand the subject.
For example, in the areas that I photographed, the chaos and disorganization can appear deceiving. I’ve discovered that time and again, when these communities are allowed to grow unimpeded, they are in a constant state of improvement. The residents are extremely creative and resourceful, and they work very hard to build their communities. Of course, when the government demolishes these settlements or handicaps the residents with oppressive laws and policies, the communities can fail. But when they’re allowed to grow, they are constantly improving themselves and often become successful, thriving areas of the city.
—Noah Addis interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ note: Noah Addis was one of the 50 LensCulture Emerging Talents in 2014. Discover Addis’ work alongside that of the other inspiring talents, each of whom share with us fresh visions and perspectives from around the world.