Carlos Cazalis has documented some of the world’s largest cities. Whether on rooftops high above São Paolo, or down in the muddied alleyways of Dhaka, Cazalis’s lens has focused on both the macro aspects of urban development — seemingly never-ending skylines of built-up environment — and the deeply intimate, such as his series on the living spaces of the urban poor in Osaka. While each city that he photographs is unique, Cazalis uses his global experience to comment on the precarious state of megacities. Cazalis was able to correspond with PhotoEd to talk about his initial attraction to megacities, his work method for documenting them, and his thoughts on their future.
Q. What was the original impetus for focusing on megacities?
A. The first idea for this project was “home,” including my own, since I have traveled extensively and lived in over 10 countries since I was four. From that moment on, the impetus has continued as if the project itself was a megacity expanding. My work in Osaka was inspired by living in Dubai but also by my recent work in São Paulo. At that time I was surrounded by all this wealth in the Middle East and I discovered that the Japanese not only are ashamed of their poverty but also purposely try to eliminate and segregate it instead of allowing the poor a dignified life.
My Dhaka work came out of curiosity for global climate change, as hundreds of thousands fled flooding and mudslides in the Bangladeshi countryside. It’s the fastest growing megacity, receiving 300 000 people a year, and it’s an environmental calamity. Tehran for me represents some sort of poetic injustice: living in a magnificent cultural city but where people must live two lives, a public and a private [life], because of religious and political ideals. Mexico is now all about infrastructure, sustainability in an ironic twist of fate. Mexico City, once Tenochtitlan, stood on water. Today massive urbanization has permeated the soil and dried the wells, and the city imports 25 percent of its water, while flood rains stream into the sewage system and threaten to flood it because [the city’s] underground infrastructure has been collapsing and has not grown fast enough. Next I’ll be doing work in Lagos and Guangzhou.
Q. What are the themes or subject matters that you want to evoke when documenting these megacities?
A. It’s too complex to have one thematic definition. Yet all these cities have one thing in common—this dramatic number of 20 000 000 inhabitants. They are all relatively close to that mark or already beyond it.
Cities are really amazing places. Millions of people gathered in these high concentrations are thriving and surviving. My hopes are that we can see clearly how far we are from our natural environment, rich or poor. In cities, concrete, noise, people, automobiles, buildings, and garbage constantly surround us. Everything is in constant motion. There is little peace of mind, yet here are some of humanity’s greatest and oldest populations.
Q. How did you arrange for your aerial shots?
A. Because this project started as independently financed, I was limited to how I could shoot from above. Often in Brazil I could exchange photos for flights. As the project grew, I’ve depended on finding rooftops, often sneaking into buildings, as I did in Osaka. Ideally what I was always looking for was to show population density in terms of habitat and pollution, and to give the public a sense that all cities, no matter how good the infrastructure is, have a particularly unnatural development for human living.
Q. How do you organize your excursions?
A. Each city excursion requires research and a freedom to explore. I had to adapt to the city, to its size, to the areas relevant to the project, and to my budget, which meant that I was happy to do a lot walking, and in that process amazing situations occurred. Often when I was done shooting, something would just be there and it was part of the life of the city. This was especially evident in Dhaka. Yet, since each city had a theme or an issue to deal with, it was important to try to go to places multiple times over a year to see how it had changed. The entire project is focused on sustainability, but primarily through habitat, because after all we have to live in these spaces. The majority of the population in these cities, except for Osaka, belonged to the lower classes, so it was important to show that the majority of these people really live in extreme situations, yet they adapt in incredible forms, although that does not diminish their hardships.
Q. What are your thoughts for the future of cities?
A. Cities are an amazing feat of humanity, and each city has a unique energy. One can really feel the struggles and glories of humanity once you have been in several of them. I do have a pessimistic view because I feel that 20 million people in areas like the ones I have documented cannot be able to sustain themselves much longer. Because of the rapid pace of development, I find it hard to see how in the short term we will want to slow down, for example, re-urbanizing, resettling, or drastically changing our way of living. We have thought of ourselves for too long as supreme beings on this planet and are only now realizing, accepting, and educating ourselves that Earth is a far larger living thing that we must be a part of and not just have environmentally politically correct feelings for. Yet, we are like any animal on the planet, with thousands of years of evolution and adaptation. So will the world collapse? Not likely. Will cities collapse? Well, if you look at Mexico City and Dhaka now, both in seismic zones, overpopulated and with serious water problems, then the answer is yes, we are probably very close to collapse or a gradually forced exodus.