In global megacities, life is a kaleidoscope of stories

More than half of Earth’s citizens live in urban areas. This photographer challenged himself to capture cities’ essence in a single image.

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A bus stop, a digital photo lab, and traditional vendors share space on a corner in Karachi, Pakistan.
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In Mexico City, pilgrims gather near a statue of Pope John Paul II outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The basilica—one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Roman Catholicism—is visited by millions of people each year.
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Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing may be the busiest intersection in the world. Usually I use a two-to-four-second exposure, but this one is eight or 10, which makes the image abstract. You can see a sea of people here, but you can’t recognize most of them as individuals—just the ones who are standing still.
This story appeared in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. It has been updated with additional photos.

 More people live in cities than ever before. According to the United Nations Population Fund, over half of the world’s citizens now live in an urban area—a figure expected to reach nearly 70 percent by 2050. Globally, one in eight of those city dwellers lives in a megacity, defined by the UN as a place with more than 10 million people.

That’s why I started this series, which I call “Metropolis.” I wanted to focus on the UN statistics—and show what they actually look like. So from 2007 to 2015 I photographed megacities and documented the dynamic process of urbanization.

I asked myself several questions: How can people live in cities that are so crowded, hectic, and chaotic? What are the differences among these megacities? And what do they have in common?

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Seen from a rooftop, the urban bustle of Lagos, Nigeria, is a blurry mosaic of colors. Africa is a rapidly urbanizing continent. By 2030 its three current megacities—Lagos, Cairo, and Kinshasa—will likely be joined by Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, and Luanda.
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Protestors, vendors, and worshippers mingle after prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, nearly a year after the start of the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011.

I try to expose the contrasts between wealth and poverty, traditional culture and cutting-edge development. I’m fascinated that so many people can coexist in such crowded places. There’s never enough space. But there’s also a current of inventiveness, a sense of community.

Whenever I work in a new city, I enlist a local assistant. We discuss which locations we should visit, and if a spot looks good, we find a high vantage point. Then it becomes a waiting game.

To visualize the speed of urban life and capture its energy, I use long exposure times. It’s important to know which elements in the frame are moving and which are still. There has to be a balance—a harmony in the chaos.

All my photos are shot on film. My aim is to encapsulate megacity life in a single photograph—one panoramic, kaleidoscopic image. All the photos in this series are multilayered: The longer you look, especially at large prints, the more you see. I’ve pored over these pictures a thousand times, but I still manage to find new stories and elements each time. I hope you will too.

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People gather under the blossoming trees of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to march in the annual Gay Pride parade. Plaza de Mayo is the most famous plaza in Argentina, home to the Metropolitan Cathedral, where Pope Francis presided as archbishop, and the president’s mansion and office, the Casa Rosada.

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The 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque (upper left) is Istanbul’s second largest mosque and one of the city’s best known sites. It looms over Eminönü, a neighborhood in the Fatih district.
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I want each image to be a story. Kolkata, India, is a city known for its hand-pulled rickshaws. I knew I wanted one in this photo, but rickshaw drivers never stop unless there’s a streetcar. Fortunately, this tram on Lenin Sarani Road comes every few minutes, so I knew I was in the right spot.