In 2009 photographer Noah Addis began working on a series titled “Future Cities” about squatter communities in densely populated cities around the world. Addis first became aware of the issue of informal urban development while traveling to Lagos, Nigeria, for his first foreign assignment as a newspaper photographer in 1999.
“I remember passing by miles and miles of these communities on my way from the airport into town,” Addis wrote via email. “At the time I was unaware that so many people in the world live on land they don’t own with no land tenure and no real security.”
Fourteen years later, Addis has traveled and photographed squatter communities in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro; Lima, Peru; Mexico City; Mumbai, India; Cairo; and Dhaka, Bangladesh. Addis said that originally he was more serendipitous with the project, “running around with a small camera and sort of looking for moments.” As the project progressed, he became interested in focusing on the architecture and landscape of the areas, examining the almost organic way the communities develop in conjunction with the needs of the inhabitants.
Addis shoots with film and typically travels with a translator making sure to notify the communities ahead of time about his plans in order to avoid hassle. The project was initially self-funded, but Addis has received fellowships from the Independence Foundation in Philadelphia and the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation.
Typically, squatter communities have been painted in a very negative light. Many struggle with basic needs such as sanitation, electricity, and clean water. They are also often built on precarious settings: “on cliffs, in low-lying areas with rising water levels, or in earthquake-prone regions,” Addis said. He pointed out that even with all of that, he was surprised “at how normal life is in these informal communities.” Reaction to the squatters varies by location, and Addis has photographed evictions and has seen governments destroy squatter communities “to make room for new development.” He also pointed out that in Lima some of the communities can legally become part of the formal city.
“I hope squatters can find more of a voice in the future,” Addis wrote. “It’s happening in certain places. Squatters tend to be very politically active, and they sometimes speak out, but often no one listens.”
“The vast majority of residents come to the city just looking for a better life. Many have jobs and work hard to support their families. … Unfortunately, due to the high cost of living in many cities, people with low incomes have few options,” he said.
One of Addis’ goals is to photograph at least 10 cities, though he says that “it’s such a huge project I could probably work on it forever.” The cities, he wrote, are “very dynamic places, they are growing and changing all the time.”
Some of Addis’ work is currently on view at the 110 Church Gallery in Philadelphia through July 27.