In many countries around the world, progress is defined by a growing metropolis and a buzzing nighttime city line peppered with fluorescent luminosity, all powered by 24-hour technology. The problem with this utopian vision is it ignores the dystopian ruins that are often left in its wake, neglecting citizens who cannot naturally find a place within its setting, or those who have been unjustly displaced by rapid development. Photographer Tong Lam is particularly interested in how this disparity manifests in China, where urban villages are collectively-owned enclaves, regularly engulfed and erased by the hyper-expansion of the country’s megacities.
“In the city of Guangzhou, the precarious nature of life is epitomized in the surreal landscape of Xiam, an urbanized village inside the Central Business district,” the photographer explains. “In this contested space, the government and developers use violence to demolish buildings illegally, resisting the owners’ fight to extract greater compensation from the developers.” What’s more: for nearly a decade, migrant workers have come to the city with the hopes of finding jobs, and are forced to squat in what Lam calls “a suspended state of ruination.”
“As soon as an apartment is vacated,” Lam explains, “all its window frames, and even some exterior walls, are violently removed by demolition workers, even though part of the building is often still occupied. This practice—common throughout China—puts pressure on those owners who are still holding out, ensuring the apartment will not be re-occupied by migrant squatters.”
As a political commentary on this autocratic practice, Lam sometimes employs contemporary photographic technology to create an aesthetic of resistance. In addition to documenting China’s uneven urban development, he also projects images of everyday life in the urban villages onto its ruins at nighttime, creating a physical and visceral criticism of the politics of gentrification.
He asks, “What does development mean in the ‘China Dream’ propagated by the state? Who and what should be made visible and foregrounded in China’s relentless high speed growth? Should it be the skyline or those who are being dispossessed?” Together, his images converse with one another in a dystopic dialogue that paints a very different picture than the flashy photos of metropolis development we are more accustomed to seeing.
Editor’s Note: We discovered Tong Lam’s images and installations through this year’s LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards. Be sure to check out the other amazing work of the winners and finalists here.