a busy street corner in Karachi, Pakistan

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.

A bus stop, a digital photo lab, and traditional vendors share space on a corner in Karachi, Pakistan.
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?

<p>Crowds pack Piccadilly Circus in London, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. After, many visitors will migrate over to West End theaters and high-end shopping on Regent Street.</p>

Crowds pack Piccadilly Circus in London, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. After, many visitors will migrate over to West End theaters and high-end shopping on Regent Street.

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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