Photographer captures the exhausting and claustrophobic Tokyo commute

Michael Wolf started his career a photojournalist for the German magazine Stern in 1994. Only in 2001, at the age of 47, did he begin working on his own as an artist. He may have gotten something of a late start artistically but his work has quickly attracted worldwide attention. 

Based in Hong Kong and Paris, he has produced an opus that explores the reality of everyday life in megacities.

Alongside his images of dense architectural cityscapes, installations, and a series of Google street view scenes, “Tokyo Compression” epitomizes his intense, tenacious style.

For 30 days, he headed out every morning during rush hour to the one metro station where he was able to set up his camera just inches away from the subway cars’ windows. There, he captured the faces of commuters, close up, pressed inside the notoriously crowded Tokyo metro. The results are unforgettable — powerful and stifling at the same time.

For anyone with a rush hour commute, the sensation these photographs elicit will feel familiar, even if you hopefully have a little more space than the workers in Tokyo. Wolf described it as an "urban hell."

The almost ghostly expressions reveal the horror but also the absurdity of the cramped conditions of life in megacities, as the artist explained: “It's the negative side of these mega-cities. You really need to compartmentalize yourself. You're breathing other people's sweat and perfume – and the proximity, one body touching the next, is horrible. It's made by humans; we did this to ourselves.”

According to the Japanese government, a significant percentage of the railways in densely populated areas have a congestion rate of 150% or more. But of course Japan isn't alone: megacities have been on the rise globally over the last century as people have left the countryside and sought opportunity in urban areas.

Wolf’s images of a real aspect of life like this certainly raise interesting issues for all of us. “I want people to wonder: is it worth it to live like this?” Wolf once asked in an interview.

Good question! What do you take away from this depiction of crowded commuters?

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