Two years after the Chinese government launched a $277 billion plan to fight smog, despite some small steps of progress, air pollution is still so bad that the mayor of Beijing recently called the city unlivable.
For a new photo series, photographer Benedikt Partenheimer spent five months traveling around China documenting some of the country’s dirtiest cities. In the photos, mostly taken from the roofs of skyscrapers, the buildings below are almost invisible in the haze.
“I wanted to create a body of work that is not photojournalistic, but more conceptual, and at the same time critical,” Partenheimer writes in an email. “It deals with the relationship between revival and decline and reflects on the consequences that come along with excessive economic growth.”
Each photo is titled with the current air quality index at the time it was taken, and the numbers are scary: Smoggy days in Shanghai had an AQI over 400. Anything over 300 is considered hazardous, the EPA’s worst ranking. (A typical day in Bakersfield, California, the most polluted city in the U.S., might have an AQI of 50 or 60).
Partenheimer aimed to make the hazy photos beautiful, hoping to draw viewers in before confronting them with the reality of what they’re looking at. He hopes that the series pushes people to think about the fact reducing air pollution could save millions of lives; as many as 1.2 million people die early in China each year from exposure to smog.
“I think images are like mirrors, we can see ourselves in them but at the same time also discover different realities,” he says. “We tend to get caught up in our everyday lives and problems, and that’s okay, but there are many other things that deserve and need our attention. We have to start to rethink our capitalist economic system before it is too late.”