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Photographing the Beauty and Inhumanity of Asia's Cramped Megacities

Michael Wolf takes photos of the masses of people who live on top of each other in Asia's biggest cities.

by Julian Morgans
May 19 2014, 4:00pm

Michael Wolf is a 60-year-old German photographer who moved to Hong Kong in 1994. "I love their rapidity of change," he said of his adopted home. "Visually, it just works for me." For his first eight years there Michael worked as a photojournalist for Stern magazine, a German weekly, before deciding to point his lens at megacities—the massive population centers that have sprung up throughout the world in recent decades, mostly in Asia. The resulting photos are both a fascinating glimpse of how humanity lives now as well as a sort of eternal ode to innovation. I called him to find out what he thought of these strange places that tens of millions of people call home.

VICE: First off, what’s a megacity?
Michael Wolf: Cities that have a population with more than 5 million. I wouldn’t really consider any European city a megacity. Paris has a population of 2 million, whereas in China, for instance, a city with 3 million is considered small. I’m talking about populations of 5, 10, 20 million—up to 25 million.

Why do they look so depressing in your photos?
Well, some things about megacities have a lot of downsides. These are profit centers. The people who run them are not really concerned about the populations that live in them. They are concerned about making money. So on the one hand they are very intimidating and frightening but on the other hand they are extremely beautiful. In The Architecture of Density (his photo series featuring an extremely dense Hong Kong high-rise), you can almost see them as a tapestry.

But what about the guys living in cardboard boxes in the Tokyo subway? Is that beautiful?
Well, what I love was their improvisation. Firstly, it’s about how architecture is created out of a need, which is very functional but then at the same time there’s a statement about economics. Since I come from photojournalism, I would say my work also has a criticism in it.

And what’s the criticism?
I’ve always been a social liberal. I’ve always been for the underclass. For example, I did a project called 100x100 where I photographed 100 apartments in a Hong Kong building that was about to be demolished, all measuring ten feet by ten feet. I am showing the living conditions of the city—but again, I’m looking at the vitality and resourcefulness of the people. They are everyday human beings and that’s what I am trying to document.

And how do you capture something like that?
I just go out every day and walk around and take photos. The only problem is that I don’t speak Cantonese, so sometimes I’ll have an interpreter with me.

So you believe in people?
Of course I do.

And do you believe in 25 million people living on top of each other?
Well no, but if you talk to people superficially, they always say their apartment complexes are so convenient. You take the elevator and you have a shopping mall, a subway station, and a school. But if you get to know them and dig deeper, every single person would like to live on a smaller scale. Maybe in a smaller house in the countryside. That wish is there but if they think about it, they get depressed. The population is very good at compartmentalizing problems. It's their creativity and resourcefulness that they bring to these conditions. It’s making do, and that’s what I’m interested in.

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