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Work in Progress, Bombay (World Press Photo Award 2011)

Martin Roemers on 'Metropolis'

Work in Progress, Bombay. Photo by Martin Roemers

This week, I was excited to interview visionary photographer Martin Roemers about his broad range of work. Roemers, born in 1962 and onetime student of photography at the Academy of Arts at Enschede, in the Netherlands, has been a professional photographer for over 20 years.

The first part of this interview focuses on ’Metropolis’, Roemers’ stunning work-in-progress photographic series of the moment, which won 1st prize in Daily Life stories in World Press Photo 2011. Through ‘Metropolis’ Roemers is documenting the megacities of our time – those urban developments which boast human populations in excess of 10 million. His images create a brightly hued patchwork of people and structure, modernity and decay, stillness and movement.

We’ve been given permission to include five photos from the Metropolis Series. You must see the rest of them here.

Interview with Photographer Martin Roemers

I view each megacity like a threatre. And the street is my stage and the people are the actors

To what extent do you consider yourself an artist, to what extent a documentarian?

If you had asked me this ten years ago I would have said documentarian and if you asked me this now … it’s somewhere in between. This is especially the case with the ‘Metropolis’ series, which is a new direction for me.

The ‘Metropolis’ series is very different from the rest of your work, which deals with conflict and its repercussions.

Every year I’ve visited India for many years, and it was in 2003 or so I was in Bombay and Bombay is a very chaotic and crowded city. It’s amazing – the energy there. I was thinking, ‘how can you make one photo in which you can see this energy, this chaos and the business and crowdedness – how can you deal with that in just one photo’?

So I went to a very busy part of this Islamic Quarter in Bombay and I went into a building where I spent the whole day. I repeatedly took the same picture over and over again for the whole day. It was an experiment in how to capture these Bombay streets.

Work in Progress, Bombay (World Press Photo Award 2011). Photo by Martin Roemers

When you say “the same picture” what do you mean?

The same street, the same shot, from one window, and the same angle the entire time.

And what were you changing about the photo then?

I repeatedly took the same picture over and over … same street, the same shot, from one window and the same angle the entire time.

It was shutter speeds mostly. If you look at any metropolis the picture is always filled up. So I was looking closely at who and what’s going into the image, and what’s going out? Are there vehicles, is there a rickshaw or is someone just standing still at the right moment? All these things have to flow into the right place. I was testing them. And when I got home and developed the images, of the many I took there were a few which stood out and I thought ‘Oh, this I could use’. But I wasn’t quite sure how I should use it.

But I started to make a series about the big cities in India and a few years later there was an UN report that over half of the world population now lives in an urban area.

Work in Progress, Calcutta (World Press Photo Award 2011). Photo by Martin Roemers

That’s actually one of the reasons that we named ourselves Urban Times!

That was one of the reason I began Metropolis. I wanted to address this report, this changes. So I decided to photograph megacities. I’ve been visiting megacities since which have a population in excess of 10 million people.

You certainly manage to convey the pure quantity of people and breadth of activity going on, but it also really comes across because of the long exposures creating those trail effects. Like ghosts.

Yes, I’ve heard it described like that. It wasn’t my intention, but I understand that ghost comparison.

The New Yorker reviewed your photos as depicting “A crush of citizens who appear as ghostly bits of fabric swirling around sidewalk venders’ displays like unharnessed energy.” I am jealous of the fact that they said that so eloquently.


What I ask myself is, how can people live in a city which is so widespread and can be so crowded and busy? What are the differences between these megacities and what do they have in common?

Work in Progress, Bombay. Photo by Martin Roemers

When in China, I noticed that many of the poorer Chinese had very different concept of personal space – and a greater willingness to invade it - than what I consider usual in the West.  As if the culture itself has evolved around the fact of its huge population. Do you know what I mean?

Yes I do. I have noticed this in India. People seem to cross the boundaries of what I consider my personal space more willingly. When I’m working I am surrounded by curious people and they come very close – in my opinion too close. But that’s not really what I’m doing there. I’m more interested in survival. How can one survive in such a city?

So I spent most of my time in Asian cities and in many profoundly poor areas where there is this survival issue of course. People come to these big cities because of the opportunities that are to be found there, but of course it doesn’t always work out and they end up in slums or they end up as a street trader or begging.

I’ve completed almost half of the project. Across Bombay, Calcutta, Jakarta, Manilla, Istanbul and Beijing.

Is there one photo which sticks out as a favourite?

It’s not like with my other series, ‘Eyes of War’ and ‘Relics of the Cold War’ where I have a clear favourite. With ‘Metropolis’ I have many favourites and this changes by the day.

These are the sort of photos I want to blow up and put on the wall of my living room – they are so complex.

I think this is a change for me. Especially since this Metroplis series I have been working with galleries. You can buy these as a limited edition print. And working with the gallery world, the art world, is a relatively new thing for me. ten years ago this wasn’t even an issue for me, then it started with me doing prints related to the Cold War Series due to some demand. But with the ‘Metropolis’ series the demand is much greater, so now there are galleries with my work in New York, in the Netherlands and in Dubai.

These gallaries work with a specific number of artists. The New York one only with photographers.

Work in Progress, Cairo. Photo by Martin Roemers

Has the ‘Metropolis’ Series brought you a new level of publicity or fame?

Yes certainly. It won a World Press award last year and was published in the New York Times. So it has got a lot of publicity. The galleries I am working with now have all been doing so since the series began.

As someone who never intended to be an artist initially, how much does renown and fame for your work appeal to you?

First of all, I always wanted to do things which I found interesting and which gave me pleasure. Otherwise I can’t spend my time focusing on it. It must touch me. There is no other way. That said, since I noticed the interest from the art world – the attention is very nice – but I wouldn’t let it influence my work. So, for example I am finishing ‘Metropolis’ and I expect it to take another 2 years, and after that it will be finished, but I have no idea what to do afterwards until the next idea that resonates with me comes to light. Sometimes I like to work on two projects at a time…

Have you got anything in mind?

Last week I was in Prora, a ‘beach resort’ on the Island of Rügen in Germany. The Nazis in the thirties built this very large vacation complex for the German workers. It’s a huge structure, like a hotel structure, kilometres long. It’s immense. Colossal. It’s deserted and it’s to expensive to remove it and too large to do anything with it. It’s a relic from the Nazi era. It was actually never in use as a vacation complex because as the war started, but it was used as a refugee centre for German refugees at the end of the war, it was a German hospital and later the Russians used it as a military base.

When I’m walking around it I think the fact that it’s still there and deserted. It is a project in its own right.

Some time ago when I finished the “Eyes of War” book I said to myself, this is the last time I focus on conflict and its impact. But when I look at Prora, I think how interesting and ideas in this direction emerge. But after Metropolis, which will take two more years, I will probably focus on a project in the borderline between documentary and art photography.

Prora, a beach resort on the island of Rügen, Germany, known especially for its colossal Nazi-planned tourist structures. Panoramic view of a block's seaward side via Wikipedia

How much of a clear idea do you have about a project in its entirety before you start shooting?

I prepare as far as I can. I prepare the basics. I never know where I will end up. I do look at images on the internet of such a city and this can sometimes help find a god location. But basically I try to find someone who can guide me during that time. Who can comunicate with people and drive me around while I’m there. That person needs to understadn what it is I’m looking for. That’s all the preparation I do really. You never know where you’ll end up.

Sound like an exciting life…

Yes it is!

I see the metropolis as a theatre. The street is my stage, the people are my actors. And in every city the actors are different and the stage is different. That’s my approach. But it’s also very specific. It’s about urbanisation and world population.

This concept of the mega-city is sort of an infinite project, though, as by their nature they are constantly growing.

I use a UN list that shows there are 23 cities with 10 million plus population. There is also a second list that shows the number of megacities expected in 2025, and there will be 37. That’s a rise of another 15 megacities in little more than a decade.

Have you heard about the plans for a Hyper-City in China?

No, hypercity?

It will merge nine cities  around the Pearl River Delta, near  Hong Kong creating a 16,000-square-mile urban swath populated by 42 million people. the inhabitants will be able to commute to any of the 9 cities within one hour -all due to high speed rail.

Woah. Really?  You have to send me the details about this. It sounds incredible.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Hmm. They must become good in one specific direction, in one specific subject.

The eyes of War. Photography by Martin Roemers

And is that mostly down to practice?

Not just practice. It’s a combination of practice and passion. First passion, and then practice.

Have you ever heard of the ’10,000 hour rule’?

No. What is that?

In his book Outliers, the author Malcolm Gladwell states the ’10,000 hour rule’. That truly successful people tend to have practiced their craft for 10,000 hours or more. This is the amount of time required to become an expert at something.

Ah, that’s very interesting. I think, over the last 20 years, I’ve put in more than 10,000 hours. I must sit down and do the full calculation!

End of Part 1

In Part 2 of this interview, coming soon, we discuss Roemer’s take on those photographic projects which documented the affects of conflict, in particular The Eyes of WarRelics of the Cold WarThe Never-Ending War and his Kabul Portraits.

Recently, Roemers’ project the “Eyes of War” has been published in a beautiful book from Hatje Cantz Publishers. The Eyes of War features forty portraits potent monochrome portraits and accompanying interviews of men and women, who lost their eyesight during the Second World War when they were either children or young soldiers. Former enemies from Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ukraine, and Russia are now united in their fate as blind people and victims of war.

For a Signed Copy at a cost (including shipping) of € 39 (in europe), or € 47/US$ 59 (outside Europe), please go to Hatjekantz. 

We recommend you purchase it!

Roemers’ work can be found at the Anastasia Photo in New York, Flatland Gallery in the Netherlands And if you want to find out more please contact photo agency Panos Pictures in London.