Interview Martin Roemers

'For me, the street is a theater'

For his long-running project Metropolis the Dutch photographer Martin Roemers (b. 1962) is recording street life in cities with a population of ten million or more. At first sight these are images that bear witness to their overwhelming, massive nature, as hives of activity in which the individual disappears. But anyone looking more closely – past the traffic whizzing by and the bombardment of impressions – can discover the human scale: the street merchant on the corner, a man watching, a bored child.

Is a dignified life really possible in cities of ten million or more?

The city is a magnet for the population of poor rural areas. It is where the opportunities are, for work, schooling and a better future. But despite their willpower and ambition, their dream usually don't come true. They are condemned to a marginal existence. The flood of new residents is simply greater than the city's capacity to absorb them. Society must see to it that there is housing for the new residents, and that garbage collection, water supplies, sewers and health care are in working order. Many cities are working on this, but the demand for facilities exceeds the supply they can deliver.

At the same time, there is a positive story. Many newcomers are enterprising and able to manage for themselves. They begin their own little business or find their way in the informal economy. If a society is not too regimented and encourages entrepreneurship, there are always opportunities.  

How do you experience the time you spend in cities like these?

Despite its dark sides, a city is a place where a lot of energy comes together, which can lead to great achievements in the areas of the economy, art, culture and science. The place where I work is the street – I love the chaos, the commotion, the smell of exhaust. For me, the street is a theatre. Each street is a stage where its different inhabitants – like actors in a play – try to find their way in the modern urban society, day in, day out. That is fascinating.

This long-term project of course fits perfectly with the main theme of Noorderlicht.

Urbanisation is an important development, with far-reaching consequences. It is good that this development is being examined from different disciplines. Photography can help by letting us see the results, both positive and negative, for instance in an event like this.