Capturing the Impossible

By Azu Nwagbogu, 2015

Is a photo essay about megacities too worthy and meaningful to be artistic? Does the aesthetic approach that visualises urban transformation render anodyne the obvious issues of displacement and relocation that accompany rapid urbanisation? The counter narrative: The plain, straightforward representation of others cannot seem to shake off the sardonic whiff of condescension; this is with the exception of the work of Walker Evans. It is clear that certain situations have to be lived to be fully understood and a photo documentary about life in the world’s megacities is certainly one of them. However, visualising these cities as a spectacle, and making them interesting and fascinating to explore, requires a unique approach. Metropolis is Martin Roemers’ monumental effort in this respect.

Almost without exception, megacities grow and expand into huge, multimillion-soul urban sprawls with no apparent plan or aesthetic. They are created by the disparate design communities assembled from local materiality and necessity, and with the occasional intervention by international and/or government institutions. The official count to qualify as a megacity used to be eight million inhabitants (Population Reports: Special Topics (15-19). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University. 1981. p. 38). Nowadays it’s ten million.

Most of what we learn about megacities has been informed by those who visit from more planned and ordered living situations. It seems odd but it is true. Lagos, my hometown, mostly came into focus over the last two decades because of the work of Rem Koolhaas. However, those of us who live here – in one of the most confounding and archetypal megacities – are rarely fascinated by our daily exposure to its megacity oddities. We just get on with things. By contrast, if your exposure to megacities is filtered through the prism of a westernised ideal, then your keen and fascinated observation of the extemporary and random approach adopted by the rest of the developing world will likely remain unabated.

Martin Roemers lives in Delft, a small city in the Netherlands with a history of pottery ceramics. It is a meticulous town. It has also famously produced a number of notable Dutch painters including Johannes Vermeer and Carel Fabritius. In Delft, images of flower paintings, portraits, and landscapes are the norm. It is the sort of green and lush place that inspires aesthetics and a cultured domestic life. How does an artist from Delft react when thrown into the cultural milieu of today’s megacities, most of which are emerging in developing nations? ‘I was struck by the thousands of people seemingly unbothered by the lack of space, the exhaust fumes and the noise. But within this chaos I also sensed a positive energy’, Roemers remarked when describing the origins of Metropolis.

There are several other cities like Lagos that are undergoing rapid transformation and urbanisation. Metropolis explores a number of them. In fact, Martin Roemers has photographed virtually all of the world’s megacities: Los Angeles, New York, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Mexico City, Mumbai, Kolkata, Karachi, Dhaka, Jakarta, Manila, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Cairo, Moscow, Istanbul, Tokyo, Paris and London. Little is understood about how to articulate coherently this evolving cultural landscape within megacities or how they work, function and thrive. Luanda, Lusaka, Lagos, Kigali, Dar es Salaam, Tunis, Libreville, Accra, Cairo, Khartoum, Kinshasa-Brazzaville and Nairobi are all African cities in a state of rapid transformation. According to the 2013 KPMG report The Role of Cities in Africa’s Rise, it is projected that over half a billion Africans will be living in cities by 2016 and that the number of cities with a population in excess of one million people will have reached sixty-five. This is higher than in North America and on par with Europe.

Roemers launched this visual exploration in a most inviting manner by adjusting his shutter speed to produce blurred images that create a sense of motion and transformation whilst also capturing the stillness of certain crucial ‘left-behinds’. It is fascinating and poetic to observe the images that represent transformation yet still capture the mystery of those who cannot and likely will not be part of this change. The homeless and the displaced still find a place within several frames in Metropolis. Indeed, the book reminds us that their stories are valid and must not be swallowed up into the larger urban transformation agenda. It is true that the displaced within society already existed in dystopia, but it is likely that they are even more threatened in the journey to utopia. In several megacities, economic realities make it difficult for lower income families to find a home in the city despite the fact it depends on them to provide human capital.

Returnees from megacities – even those who have escaped the most challenging experiences in, for instance, Lagos – will talk about how much they miss the place. When pressed as to what they miss and why, the most frequently used word will be ‘energy’. They miss the energy and craziness of the place. Capturing transformation and energy is more commonly associated with the language of physicists than with visual documentarians. Moreover, the notion of using documentary photography to capture megacities’ energy and chaos is often doomed to failure. The tension between the obvious, visual and structural transformations and those who live this change is often lost within this narrative. The usual approach is oftentimes descriptive in a linear fashion and through frames that represent the changing landscapes over a period of time that is abstract and difficult to relate to. Metropolis utilises an approach to visualising megacities that challenges Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: It captures the impossible; with displacement and position in each frame, it challenges the very notion of what is essential within a change agenda. Is it the people or the structures?

Metropolis does not adopt the techniques of documentary photography. This is a curious distinction, as art and photography continue to negotiate the delicate balance that goes beyond photography’s overtly illuminating and utilitarian values. Capturing the essence of the world’s megacities – in all their transience and intangibility – is a daunting task. This is not the job of a documentary photographer; rather what is required is artistic intervention. Each image captured in Metropolis is a work of art and is as close as it gets to understanding the mystifying paradoxes of megacities.



Azu Nwagbogu is Director of both the African Artists’ Foundation and Lagos Photo Festival.