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Totems by Alain Delorme

Totems by Alain Delorme

Photographer Alain Delorme's series Totems depicts the travels of migrant workers in the Chinese city of Shanghai. In the photos, Delorme shows the workers moving through the city, usually on bicycle, carrying impossibly stacked piles of cardboard boxes, tires, bottles, foodstuffs, and even balloons. Photo historian Raphaële Bertho calls these teetering columns the "new totems of a society in complete transformation."

Totems by Alain Delorme

While the busy streets and fantastic architecture of Shanghai are favored subjects for photographers, Delorme chooses not to focus on the more ostentatious landmarks (what he calls "delusional grandeur of Chinese society") and instead turns his lens on the individuals who keep those "delusions of grandeur" up and running.

Totems by Alain Delorme

The migrants shown in Delorme's photos are part of Shanghai's "floating population", the low-income workforce that has made possible the rise of China as an economic power.

Totems by Alain Delorme

The workers travel through the city, both part of and not wholly part of Shanghai society. Delorme uses framing and color editing

techniques in his photos to subtly show us their position in Chinese society.

Totems by Alain Delorme

In this photo, for example, Delorme shows us the relationship between the migrant worker and Shanghai. At first glance, they may seem to be invisible or at least out of place. The sleek modern buildings in the background contrast with the haphazardly stacked cabinets and chairs rising up from the cart. A pedestrian in bright yellow walks by, seemingly not even aware of the amazing feat being performed by the man in the foreground, the only individual who is looking at the camera.

Totems by Alain Delorme

Delorme uses color enhancement to further separate his subjects from the background, as we see here. The bright bursts of color in the flowers are a stark contrast to the gray buildings and washed out blue sky. All of the photos have very strong lines and rigid geometrical rules that further differentiate the subject and the city.

Totems by Alain Delorme

To Delorme, these piles are "totems" in that they represent the vision of a changing society. These objects contained in these stacked boxes are manufactured much in the same way the landscape behind them is manufactured. The migrant worker may at first seem to be a servant to the system that privileges the product over the worker, yet by training his camera on the migrant workers ferrying their cargo from one side of Shanghai to the other, Delorme grants them the ultimate power over an economically unjust society: individualism.

Totems by Alain Delorme

The images are meant to be somewhat dream-like and even cheerful. Perhaps Delorme's biggest achievement with the Totems series is how he makes visible the "world factory" that powers every urban center. With this in mind, why not take a look around your own city? You might have missed something. MT

Totems by Alain Delorme

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