Photographer Tim Franco Documents Growth of Megacity Chongqing in New Book and Event at Asia Society

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As part of its plan to urbanize the country, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国住房和城乡建设部) developed the concept of the National Central City (国家中心城市).   These cities — designated in 2010 to be Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Tianjin — would be political, economic, and cultural centers whose sphere of influence would extend to nearby cities and surrounding areas.  Of the five, Chongqing is one of the largest and most rapidly developing.  In 2010, the national census counted an urban population of roughly 8.5 million, but in 2014, the number doubled to about 17 million.  Chongqing municipality is home to a staggering 30 million.

With this growth comes tremendous changes not just to landscape and skyline but also to the makeup of the population.  French photographer Tim Franco wanted to witness the changes that Chinese cities were undergoing but felt he had already missed out on Shanghai’s ascent.   After considering growing second tier cities like Wuhan and Chengdu, he chose Chongqing.  He told Arch Daily:

After a few days in Chongqing, I quickly understood it was the city I wanted to document. The most obvious reason is that this growing megalopolis is located right in between mountains and giant rivers, which give it a very unique scale. Most of the big cities in China are flat and extended but because of its unique geographical location, Chongqing is urbanizing through beautiful elements which gave the photos a very particular aesthetic. The second reason is that, being the latest province city to be created in China, and because of the different policies following the construction of the three gorges dam project, Chongqing was facing one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world. With almost two-thirds of Chongqing’s population still rural, the local government is trying to invert that trend and relocate a massive population of farmers into the city. I really felt that Chongqing was a representation of what was going on in the whole country, except in a rapid and city-scale simulation.

His five years of documenting Chongqing’s transformation can be found in his new book Metamorpolis (Pendant ce temps, 2015).  With a foreword by Frederic Edelmann and text by Richard Macauley, the 112-page book shows stunning contrasts and the sheer scale of development.  Visit Franco’s online portfolio for a look at some photos from Metamorpolis.

On Wednesday, July 1, ChinaFile hosts Franco at Asia Society in Megacity Chongqing Now.  He will present a slideshow of photos from the book and will share the stories behind them.  ChinaFile’s visuals editor David Barreda will a lead a discussion and take questions from the audience, and a book signing will follow.

Ahead of his talk Franco graciously took the time to answer our questions about this fast-growing and fast-changing city.

Tell us about what is happening in Chongqing.  Why is it growing so quickly?

Chongqing has been chosen by the central government to be the economic capital of central China.  After the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and the flooding of large regions, a lot of people have been relocated into the city.  The ambition of the local government is to make the current majority of rural people living in Chongqing into urbanites, which would be around 20 millions farmers coming into the city.  For those reasons, Chongqing is growing rapidly and former rural areas are being grabbed to make room for urbanisation.

The title of your monograph is a portmanteau of “metamorphosis” and “metropolis”.  Is the Chongqing undergoing a complete change?

My photography looks at how a city is growing very fast into a rural environment and all the issues that comes with it.  A lot has to do with the struggle between nature and the city — the green against the concrete.  I see the urbanisation and the massive wave of concrete as trying to take over nature, but nature is still trying to battle with concrete.  I had put on paper all the words that were coming to me when thinking about my project.   A friend of mine combined two of them together, and that’s how I got the title.

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How did you engage the people whose portraits you took?

Most of the time when I engage the people in conversation, I can very quickly see if they will be open to be portrayed.  I explain them what I am doing about the city of Chongqing, and some of them are curious and also ask me questions and then I portray them.

Your photos do a fantastic job contrasting human elements against the massive buildings and bridges.  Does the city feel as imposing as it looks?

Yes, it does.  I would say it’s even more impressive in reality, and sometimes it’s hard to render it into photography.  But the first visit to the city always takes your breath away.

Chongqing is just one of many megacities in China.  Does it differ from other Chinese cities?  

As you say Chongqing is one of many, but I think what makes it particular is the fact that it is one of the fastest growing because of the different reasons I mentioned before and also because the urban landscape can be observed on incredible scale as the city is stuck in between rivers and mountains.  This gives it this special scale that is more easy to capture with a photograph than just a flat city extending around the center like Beijing or Chengdu.

For each trip to Chongqing, did you have something specific you wanted to shoot?  Did this change as the project developed?  Did you make it a point to revisit locations?

At first, I had no specific goals but to discover more about the city.  I would say that during the first few trips, I was all about discovering and getting to know the city.  But after a while, I looked at my body of work and also talked with some people in the city and other journalists that visited the city, and I decided to concentrate on more specific stories and try to find places that were more relevant to how I wanted to document it.  I also often came back to key places to see how there were developping over the years.

How did you explore the city?  How did you choose what to shoot, and how did you select the photos for the book?

At the beginning, I would either go for very long walks or I would take a taxi, choose a random point in the city and remember the interesting places I could see during the trip to go back later.  At some point I also purchased a motorbike locally.  It cost me 150 USD, and after a couple of weeks, I sold it for 140 USD, haha.

Do you have a favorite place in the city?  Do you have a particular moment that defined the city for you?

In general, I love walking on the river sides because they represent the most interesting and most graphic part of the city; but, in the first photo of the book, I am standing on the top of a mountain in the Nanping district where there is a giant sculpture of a golden eagle.  From there you can see the urban part of the city and how it incorporates in its very green and rural surroundings.   Maybe that would be my favorite place to look at the city.

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Why did you choose to shoot in medium format film and what film did you use?

I love big formats because they give you a better definition of space and volumes which are important when portraying a city.  I wanted to shoot large format but the process is too slow to incorporate people in the photo with a natural way, so I went to a smaller format.  I shot everything on Kodak Portra.

The most dramatic photos are the ones that include nature.  In some, like the one where the city is almost hidden behind mountain peaks and the one where the hillside and wall is overrun by vegetation, the natural landscape holds its own against the man-made infrastructure.  Is disappearing greenspace a problem?

For me, this is the main theme of the project, and I think two of the most interesting things was to see how, when you force the city onto the nature too quickly, nature fights its way back into it and how the majority of the population who are farmers, can’t adapt so quickly to the urban life and bring nature back into the city.

There appears to be a lot of urban farming in the city.  Can you tell us about these gardens and farms and the people who tend them?  Are they common?  Is the land reserved for farming or is it guerrilla farming?

It is completely improvised farming.  As I mentioned before, a lot of new residents have no idea how to live in the city or get a job; so, they end up doing the only thing they know how to which is farming.  They find whatever piece of land is available, on the side of roads, rivers or next to construction sites and start farming it. [Franco’s photos of Chongqing’s urban farmers can be seen in “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”.]

The cable car that is featured in the mini-documentary and in a few photographs looks like a lot of fun and the perfect way to view the city.  What’s it like riding in it?

It is very impressive riding it.  It’s funny because when I first came, the fee was very small like 2 RMB to go across, because it was used mainly as a transportation device between Nanping and Jiefangbei.  But now with all the bridges, subway, and the population getting richer, it’s becoming more of a tourist attraction and for the past 4 years, they are charging a tourist price of 20 RMB.

With the smog and industrial feel of the city, the city seems bleak, but there are indications, like the waterpark and the modern shopping mall that there’s another side to the city.  Which represents the city better?

They both represent the city.  I am always very impressed about how easily people adapt in China.  No matter how dark and depressing the city may look from our point of view, they find a way of making it works and making the best of it.  I think it should be a good lesson for Europe and especially France where I come from 😉

What changes do you expect to see in Chongqing over the next five years?

It’s always hard to predict what is going to happen in Chongqing and in China in general.  A lot of people are predicting crisis and fall, but they have been saying that for the past decade and surprisingly, the country is still mainly on track!

The interview was edited for clarity.


Images courtesy of Tim Franco.