Interview Michael Wolf

'Man is responsible for this himself – a dreadful system for people and by people'

Faces and bodies squashed against the windows of the metro in Tokyo. They stare vacantly, lost in thought, sombre. Apparently in the world's biggest urban conglomerate – 35 million residents! – people are reduced to cattle. In his series Tokyo Compression the photographer Michael Wolf, himself a resident of Hong Kong, blows up this detail and raises it to symbolic status. In this he irrevocably poses the question: can a person retain his identity and dignity in the modern megalopolis?

How did Tokyo Compression come about?

“In 1996 I discovered a small station where you could get extremely close to the widows of the trains, since there was only one track. I took six photos there that I put in the ‘subjects to work on someday’ file. Eight years later I returned to Tokyo to explore my original idea in greater depth.”

The photos are tragic, but also sometimes humorous in their absurdity. What do you read yourself in these faces pressed together?

“Chiefly the tragedy of the human condition. What you see is not the result of a natural catastrophe. Man is responsible for this himself – a dreadful system for people, and by people.”

Is urbanisation a negative development, then?

“It has not improved the quality of life in general. Cities become increasingly busy, noisier, dirtier. They divide people into the haves an have nots. Real estate prices have gone through the roof in all the great cities, so that only the rich can afford to live in liveable neighbourhoods. The poor are marginalised, literally and figuratively. That is symptomatic of the world in which we live – everything is becoming increasingly out of kilter, until it all comes crashing down, in an economic, technological or environmental catastrophe.”

What role can a festival like Noorderlicht play?

“Festivals that take contemporary subjects by the horns are important, because they make us conscious of the injustice and imbalances that we have created in the world. The medium of photography is particularly suited for this. It enables you to communicate clearly and directly.”