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The Secret Life Of Hong Kong’s Communal Rooftops

Photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze captures life atop buildings in one of the world’s densest cities.

I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong-based professional photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, and his depictions of Hong Kong’s architecture, for a really long time. His latest series, called Concrete Stories, offers an entirely new perspective on the city’s urban life, capturing the way that space-squeezed residents utilize their building’s communal roofs. It’s both beautiful and mesmerizing, in a Rear Window kind of way.

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Concrete Stories started out by accident, and the photos in the series often involve a stroke of luck. “It was on a morning when I found myself on a rooftop while scouting for another photo project,”Jacquet-Lagrèze tells me. “The sky was very clear and the rising sun illuminated the city little by little, opening small pockets of light through the buildings. At that moment, a patch of rooftop nearby was suddenly bathed in light, and something on it moved. Looking more intently, I realized it was someone mending an aerial [antenna].” He quickly snapped the scene, fascinated by the magical serendipity of the moment. He decided to turn the idea into a series after another lucky shot, a photograph titled Young Reporter showing a woman perched on the edge of a rooftop while on the phone.

Jumping Rope [Photo: Romain Jacquet-Lagreze]
Jacquet-Lagrèze shoots with a regular camera from rooftop vantage points he can access, usually at sunset, waiting for the perfect snapshot with a telescopic lens. The photos, he says, are genuine slices of people’s lives and never staged. Instead, Concrete Stories is “a collection of genuine instants from the daily life of Hong Kong’s inhabitants, more particularly of people from the older districts located in the center of the city.”

For the photographer, these scenes are integral to the city’s culture, and serve as “a record of how people make use of available space in a cramped city.” But according to Jacquet-Lagrèze, it’s a culture that is quickly disappearing with these buildings and their communal rooftops. Such spaces “are disappearing at a fast pace given the scarcity of land, which forces authorities to pull down all the low-rise buildings in order to leave space to taller and more modern ones where rooftops are inaccessible.” It’s part of the gentrification that has impacted the older neighborhoods of cities, and their long-time inhabitants, for years, “making it unaffordable for humble people to remain in the district they used to live in.”

Concrete Stories will be featured in a May 2018 exhibition at the Blue Lotus Gallery in Hong Kong. It will also be part of Jacquet-Lagrèze’s new book, which will appear at the same time. You can follow his work on Instagram and his webpage. You can also order the second edition of his last book here.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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