Kris Provoost Charts Life Down on the Ground in China’s Most Populated City

“Chongqing brings this density to a whole next level. All you can see at times is a wall of buildings. With no space for that tiny bit of air to penetrate through. That fascinates me, somehow.”
- Kris Provoost

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Last time we featured Kris Provoost he had been travelling around China photographing it’s recent spate of extraordinary and incredible architecture for his series Beautified China. The Belgian photographer, based in Shanghai, is himself an architect and has worked for highly respected firms. But he’s also on track to becoming renowned around the world for his documentation of China.

For his latest series HUMAN vs CITY, Kris travelled to the Chinese city of Chongqing – a city whose population growth has grown exponentially in recent years.

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Explore the city’s dense foggy streets in conversation with the photographer himself.

THE PLUS: How have you been? Have you been staying in China all this time since we last spoke?
Kris Provoost:
I have been good! I was in China most of the time, been travelling around extensively over the past year discovering many interesting parts of China. I have been establishing my own photography business and so far it’s going great!

TP: Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for this series? Why the antagonism between ‘human’ and ‘city’?
KP:
I was in Chongqing last year and immediately felt that this might have been the most fascinating Chinese city I had been to at the time. Unfortunately I was quite short on time back then to really explore.

On my next visit in April, I deliberately took the time to go deeper and try to capture what makes Chongqing so fascinating. For me that was the coexistence of human and city. As a place with 30,000,000 people, they are everywhere, in the most surreal of places and I found this super fascinating.

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TP: With your Beautified China series, you use a very minimalist approach. This series appears so rich with detail it is almost the opposite – perhaps even maximalist. Why did you approach the photographs in this way?
KP:
This series is indeed the complete opposite. I felt I needed to capture Chongqing how it really is on a normal occasion. The amount of detail adds to the often surreal notion in the pictures. During my three days there I walked and walked and the best scenes appeared in front of me when I absolutely didn’t expect or plan for it.

TP: What was it like wandering the streets shooting pictures there?
KP:
It was tough at times. Chongqing is a very hilly city, so to cover those level differences I had to climb a lot of stairs. But it all comes worth it if you can get some shots beyond your wildest imagination. 

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TP: You’ve said Chongqing is a city of contrasts – what other contrasts did you find there?
KP:
The contrasts that attracted me the most were obviously (and perhaps cliche one for China) is the difference between old and new. Chongqing is a gritty city, with many rundown building, but one block further they are building a squeaky clean glass high rise.

Beyond that it was interesting to see that Chongqing can be both very bright but also really dark. Along the river everything is open and bright (the riverbank are completely in the open and accessible) but then when you get in the dense centre everything can feel quite dark. The density results in many residential towers being built very close together and leaves no daylight to penetrate to street level or more damaging: the actual apartments. 

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TP: Was there anything you saw or found that you were not expecting?
KP:
What I didn’t expect is that the riverbanks are used by many. Even on a Thursday or Friday the river banks are used for day camping, for walking, for playing and mostly for fishing. Not that I would like to eat a fish coming out of those rivers, but the river banks are full of fishers. One day I was walking along the river bank, I did get shouted at. It seemed like one of the fisher didn’t like someone running around there with a camera. Not entirely sure why. As all the other people had no problem with a foreigner being there.

TP: The images all have a warm foggy tone – any reason for this?
KP:
Chongqing gets a lot of fog. While most of the time, the air was clear, I wanted a consistent mood across the whole set. Also the warm tone, for me, represents more the feeling I had when walking around the city.

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TP: What did you like most about the city?
KP:
I liked the density most in the city. While most people prefer to be in a less dense place, but for me this gives extra energy. I like to be in dense places. Hence also why I live in Shanghai. Every day, I overlook the skyline of Shanghai and all I can see is buildings – that puts me at ease.

Chongqing brings this density to a whole next level. All you can see at times is a wall of buildings. With no space for that tiny bit of air to penetrate through. That fascinates me, somehow.

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TP: Do you have plans to explore other cities in this way?
KP:
I’d like to continue the series in Hong Kong, a city that fascinates me for the same reasons: density and large amount of people. But the style might be different to capture the mood. Hong Kong has many housing estates far away from the shiny skyline that show how Hong Kong functions. That repetition in housing units is something that has fascinated me for years.

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