Raphael Olivier is a French photographer based in Shanghai who has travelled extensively through the region. One particular personal project saw Raphael travel all the way to Ordos in Inner Mongolia. A ghost city, Ordos was designed to be home to one million people in the late ’90s/early 20’s but the city became a spectacular failure and the only people who moved in were local government officials and migrant workers.
As a result, the place is now a ghost city with abandoned buildings and half-finished housing projects.
‘Ordos – A Failed Utopia‘ is Raphael Olivier’s latest project which takes us on a journey to this city. We asked him a little bit about his work there and what inspired him to see the city for himself.
Tell us a little bit about your background in photography. How did you get into the field and what prompted you to move to Shanghai?
‘I’ve been working as a full-time photographer for about 8 years now. I first got into it as a hobby like many people, travelling around and shooting a bit of everything like people, landscapes, street photography etc. Only later I was offered a job in Vietnam kind of by accident as an in-house photographer and designer for a fashion company, which was really the gateway to where I am today.
‘Fashion was really not my thing but soon enough, one thing lead to another, and I was offered a position as staff photographer in a proper photo agency. So I quit my day job and started shooting assignments around the region. Then a couple of years later I was looking for better opportunities and more stimulating challenges so I moved to Shanghai which was for me a very exciting city, a huge center of activity with plenty of amazing projects happening all over the place. It has now been about 5 years since I moved to Shanghai and working in China has been a huge step forward in both my personal and professional evolution, the speed and energy of everything here really pushes people forward’.
When did you first hear about Ordos? What interested you the most about visiting the place?
‘I heard about Ordos way back when I was still based in Vietnam, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to travel to China in the first place. Then I moved to China, settled in Shanghai, started a business, got into the daily routine and never actually made it to Ordos. Only recently after 5 years here I decided to leave China and move onto a new chapter of my life, so I really wanted to take this Ordos trip I had in my mind for years. I did not want to leave China without seeing this incredible city for myself. And I was not disappointed, the trip was well worth the wait’.
Tell us about the place today. What did you find when you travelled there? What did you find most interesting or eerie?
‘Ordos today has grown a little bit, there are more people living there now than 10 years ago, so in a way it may feel less like a totally empty city freshly popped out of the ground. There is a small city center with a few shops and even a McDonald’s. However just outside the few busy streets of the ‘center’ everything is still really empty and the crazy buildings which were probably looking brand new 10 years ago are already falling apart due to cheap and fast construction, giving place to a totally surreal post-apocalyptic landscape of decaying monuments and empty housing projects.
‘I’m sure Ordos was really amazing when it came out of the ground, but I’m happy I waited some years before visiting as the current state of abandon gives it an extra touch of hopelessness and poetry’.
Where do you plan to travel next for your photography work?
‘After living in Vietnam and China for almost 9 years, I now feel the call of something a bit more comfortable, with fast internet, polite taxis and all that. Maybe I’m just getting older. I’m looking into moving to Singapore at the moment. But for my work I’ll continue to travel around Asia and will most likely continue to visit China from time to time’.