Heavy air pollution and its consequent health risks continues to cloud China. In Beijing, the country's capital and the world's third most populous city, checking for the daily Air Quality Index (AQI), along with wearing masks and installing air filters within homes, has become the norm for its citizens. Through his series Wu Da!, Beijing-based photographer Montague Fendt documents the alarming condition in this highly urbanized and industrialized city.
He elaborates on his eye-opening photographs and finding the silver lining amid China's choking smog in this brief interview.
Hello Montague! Thank you for your time. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
My name is Montague Fendt. I was born in the crisp air of Basel, Switzerland and live in Beijing since 2003. What initially started as an exchange year during my filmmaking studies ended in a long-term stay and a love/hate relationship with this city. I mainly work as a Director and DOP for advertising and short films, however over the last years I have also continuously documented the life and changes in China's controversial capital with my old and trusty film cameras.
Walk us through your series Wu Da!. How did you come up with the idea of starting it?
Wu Da! (雾大) translated from Chinese means 'Heavy Fog’. It is also a common answer you get from people in the capital if you ask them what's wrong with the sky. This 'fog' has little to do with humidity in the air. Beijing’s air pollution is infamously bad, as a matter of fact it’s one of the worst in the world and living in Beijing gets you a front row seat. From a visual perspective, there is an interesting beauty within the smog. A soft, diffused light that covers everything like the beginning of a winter storm, it makes for interesting photography. The series is part documentation but also a study of colors, textures and contrast. Vast cityscapes and modern architecture drowning in the mist, a whole palette of interesting shadings and layers. A surreal array of colors fills the sky, acidic orange, eerie green, faint yellow and lots of shades of gray.
How did you decide which particular day, location, or instances to take photographs of?
Most mornings I wake up to the humming of the air filter in my house. A very common item for people staying in Beijing over a long period of time. As one would check the daily weather or temperature, in Beijing we check the air quality on our phones. The AQI (Air Quality Index) is a scale from 0-500 measuring various pollution particles in the air. An average day in my hometown Basel reaches around AQI 10, a heavily polluted day in Los Angeles will reach 150. The yearly average in Beijing is around 179, with some record values of 879, cracking the scale. All I needed to do is glance at my phone in the morning, if the AQI is high, the city is ready to be captured.
Aside from being a documentation of the alarming atmospheric condition in Beijing, you mentioned that Wu Da! also serves as a “study of colors, textures, and contrast.” In a way, it’s like finding a silver lining even in the most hopeless condition. What’s your take on this?
Yes, you are right. I believe that as an artist you capture and document life as you see it and there’s also beauty to be found in desolation and despair. To this day I am stunned by the surreal world I see when I look out the window and can’t but be inspired by that in a way. I want to share these strange vistas with other photography enthusiasts and show how bleakness can also inspire creative conception.
What’s the most challenging aspect of making this series?
I usually have a clear image in my head of what my shot should be like, I guess the main challenge is to then find the angle that satisfies me. Unlike Shanghai or many other metropolis, Beijing has very few accessible rooftops or terraces. When it comes to my cityscapes or architectural photography, I prefer to be at a certain height, capturing the vista relatively leveled and having a straight-on image with clear lines. This means spending many weeks climbing around on rooftops, sneaking around office hallways, finding apartment blocks with windows that point in the right direction, bribing elevator operators, scouting interesting architecture and find the right vantage points.
From an outsider’s perspective, it might not be easy to grasp how a slight difference in Air Quality Index (AQI) can alter the quality of life in Beijing. As someone who
had been living in the city for more than a decade. How does it affect your day-to- day life? What are the common measures the citizens use to combat the alarming effects of pollution?
Few people that haven’t spent time here can grasp the full extent this has on daily life. The measuring stations around the cities issue warnings when bad smog hits, the government urging citizens not to leave the house if possible, wear masks and refrain from any exercise or physical exertion. Highways are closed due to bad visibility, schools are closed and some offices suspend work when the AQI hits a certain level. As citizens we take the necessary steps, close all windows, get the pollution masks out and turn our air filters to their maximum setting. It is already part of daily life for about two- thirds of each year. I cannot but ask myself, is this our world's future?
What do you hope to achieve through this documentation?
All of the photographs are shot on 120 celluloid film, none of them are graded or tampered with. I wanted to achieve a very pure look and show the smog in a realistic
but dreamy way. No filters, cropping or adjusting, just classic photography. The photographs are named after the AQI of the moment they were taken. It is foremost a personal project of mine, but there is definitely an urgency to this problem as well. Pollution related illnesses and the impact on the environment will haunt China and the world for decades to come. I do hope to raise more awareness about this problem and continue to exhibit ‘Wu Da!’ prints on air pollution related forums, exhibitions and in galleries wherever I can.
What’s next for you?
I have lived in China for 13 years now and it has taught me so much. There were enormous challenges but also great rewarding experiences and friendships which shaped me into the person I am today. I plan to move on soon and find other interesting places and projects, there is so much to see. After countless commercial projects over the years, I am looking forward to put my experience to better use and shoot the more exciting things in life. I want to expand my portfolio of portraits, nudes and street photography all over the world.
All images and information in this article are provided to Lomography by Montague Fendt and used here with permission. To see more of his work, visit his website or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.