When the Dutch photographer Martin Roemers set out in 2007 to photograph street life in some of the world’s bustling metropolises, there were 22 cities in the world that met the UN criterion for a megacity: 10 million inhabitants or more. He couldn’t keep up with global urban growth: by the time he finished his series in 2015, there were 28, according to the UN. His large, bright, hyperdetailed images of the dynamic, chaotic, overwhelming life in the world’s busiest cities won him first prize in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards. Metropolis has been published as a magnificent book by HatjeCantz, and photographs are now on view in the Amsterdam photography museum Huis Marseille. Journalist Tracy Metz (LF ’07) learns more.
Tracy Metz: How do you capture these images?
Martin Roemer: I always hire a local fixer, often a photographer, who helps me find spots where I can look out over the crowd and the infrastructure. I use long shutter times, so that movement – a train, for example, or a group of cars – becomes a colored whoosh. People who sit or stand still for a few seconds longer then become the main characters of the story, as it were: a rickshaw runner in Kolkota, a woman buying bracelets at a cart in Mumbai, a homeless man in New York. Sometimes there is such a mass of people that it becomes completely abstract, for example in the image of the Tokyo area of Shibuya where enormous numbers of people cross the street at the same time.
I still use an analog camera, as I find the quality of the light and the colors softer. The prints are digital. I like the balance between the softness on the one hand and the amazing amount of detail on the other. The longer you look, the more you see.
TM What guided your choice of cities?
MR I wanted a mix of continents and of themes. Of course Asia and the Indian subcontinent are well-represented. When I started, the only megacities in and around Europe were Paris, Istanbul, Moscow. London has now joined the club, and is in the series, as is New York.
I also wanted scenes that said something about religion, about politics, about economics. I was lucky in New York: I had decided not to go to Times Square, but just as I passed by there was a demonstration against Guantánamo Bay. It only lasted a couple minutes, the police intervened immediately. In Moscow, too, I photographed a march of Communists – you only see the blur of color that is their red flags, but you immediately understand the political undertone.
In Lagos I found a group of taxi drivers who have built a platform near their taxi stand under a flyover where they pray together. The city is total chaos but this is actually quite a serene moment.
TM How does life in these huge cities strike you for the people who live there? Unbearable?
MR There are big cultural differences in how much personal space people need. In India and Bangladesh they don’t seem to need any at all, in London and Tokyo there is always a distance, no matter how minimal. Yes, in all these cities the streets are often packed, and that can be quite overwhelming, but at the same time I really enjoy the lack of organization and the dynamic feel of it all. In twenty years all these places will have changed unrecognizably.