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Matthew Niederhauser

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Egongyan Bridge, Jailing River, Chongqing, China 2008

Egongyan Bridge over Jailing River, Chongqing, China, 2008

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China’s Chongqing municipality with a population now at 32 million is the fastest-growing urban center on Earth. Economic migrants from the countryside and neighboring provinces have swelled Chongqing at a rate of between 500,000 to 1 million people every year.

A decade ago — as part of plans to raise living standards in the western provinces — the Chinese government put Chonqing at the center of a $200 billion program of investment in infrastructure and commerce. The Guardian has described it as “the biggest megalopolis you’ve never heard of.”

City of Ambition, an online “gallerybook” by Turkish photographer Ferit Kuyas, is a spectral and haunting look at the drastic urbanization of what was once a relatively modest-sized metropolis. Chongqing’s population in its main urban areas was a little over 5 million in 2000. By 2020 it’s estimated that it will be 20 million.

For Kuyas, who married a Chongqing citizen, his portfolio captures not the city’s almost unfathomable progress, but rather the slow personal discovery of a city to which he has family ties and, at times, has called home.

“When you visit a place and have family there, you are in a different mindset,” says Kuyas, “It is like coming home. My personal approach was more complex. What attracted me most in the beginning was the two huge [Yangtze and Jialing] rivers blending in the city and then the topography of hills and quarries in the middle of the city. Yes, it appears to be haunting but when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t see that so much anymore.”

Chongqing is as renowned as San Francisco for its fog, and it is the defining element of Kuyas’ series. “At the beginning of the project I had expected harsh strong light,” says Kuyas. “On my first day shooting in October 2005 there was fog and a drizzle. I wanted to postpone but my sister-in-law who later turned out to be my photo assistant said that the weather would be like this during all three weeks of my stay. So I had to become friends with the fog. Today I see the fog as gift.”

“The fog serves as metaphor for today’s China with all its mysteries,” he says. “We can see clearly what is in the foreground. This is today: We know what’s going on. The things far away are partly or completely hidden: This is the future — we have expectations but we don’t really know.”

The unique climate and frantic construction in Chongqing have made it an attractive prospect for photographers. Nadav Kander included 11 images from Chongqing in his 2009 Prix Pictet–winning portfolio Yangtze, The Long River. This month Matthew Niederhauser of Institute Artist Management published a Chongqing photo essay in Foreign Policy.

Chongqing has historically relied heavily upon military industry to buttress regional economics. During World War II the city was heavily and strategically bombed. “Today there is a mix of heavy industry and automotive, electronic, food, chemical, textile and pharmaceutical industry,” says Kuyas.

The collection’s title, City of Ambition, refers to a quote by photography godfather Alfred Steiglitz describing the bustle and growth of 1920s Manhattan. The inference is that China’s future has only just begun. With either economic advance or environmental hazard dominating the media coverage of modern China, it is no surprise that the dramatic and particular rise of Chongqing lures journalists and photographers.

Kuyas has witnessed varied local reaction to Chongqing’s development. While some Chongqing citizens are proud of the city’s emergence, others have suffered — forced out their homes by the clearance of city blocks for construction of new apartments. Many of those displaced are unable to afford the new higher rents.

With change occurring at such a wicked pace and Kuyas working on City of Ambition between 2005 and 2008, how much longer does it — can it — remain relevant? Kuyas responds, “City of Ambition is a map of economic growth and of hope for the future. But it also breathes with history, social change and the exploitation of nature. All this is true for the whole of today’s China.”

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