Interview: The Death & Life of Great Asian Cities vol I – Éanna de Fréine

Interview by Ricardo Nunes

Ricardo Nunes: You visited many cities for this project all over Asia, what was your guideline for your choice of city you were photographing?

Éanna de Fréine: There was no real process to be honest. I was in Asia for a bit over four years and I let my curiosity lead me. I lived in both Taiwan and Japan so I naturally came to know these places quite well, while I took trips to places such as Shanghai, Jakarta, Da Nang and Hong Kong out of pure interest to see what these cities were like, and how they differed from my cities of residence, and of course, from the cities I knew back home in Europe. 

What fascinated me the most about these cities was how they contained elements that I simply couldn’t imagine in most European cities, such as elevated highways going through the city centres, a total blurring of the lines between residential and industrial, yet seemed to have found their own sense of harmony. 

In Osaka, a city in many ways much more Western than most of the others in the book, I read up on the lack of zoning laws in Japanese cities. This had been something I had observed just walking around photographing. On a single block you might find a huge car park, an industry of some sort, and a small house squashed in between. People didn’t seem to mind living next to non-residential elements, something I would find hard to imagine in Dublin or London. 

In other cities, I had the feeling that there was a blurring of the lines between what we in the West would consider private and public zones. An example would be small restaurants set up in the front room of people’s houses, where you would eat while the kids of the owners watched TV in the corner. 

RN: What was your practical approach for this project?

ÉdF: My practical approach was one I learnt from one of my favourite photographers, Peter Bialobozreski. It involves a lot of walking and exploring of a city space, looking for things of interest and then trying to get it in the right light and situation. When I visited cities in Korea, China etc I had time constraints so I would shoot a lot and work through the images later. 

This is in contrast to how I worked in the cities I lived in: Taipei and Osaka. In Taipei I spent almost 18 months without really taking any photos of interest. I didn’t want to fall into cliches, I wanted my mind to distill everything that was new around me and find something that really interested me. Of course I would go for walks with the camera, but it took a long time before I really found a subject of interest. But in the process of searching, I found myself documenting the city as a whole.

In Osaka, I would spend my evenings walking and exploring with my tripod. I found it very hard in Osaka to find a single project which interested me wholly – which is how I prefer to work – but over time my observations came together to create a picture of the city from different sides. 

RN: Can you also tell us about the title itself?

ÉdF: The title is a homage to The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, a seminal books I was required to read while studying Sociology years back and which has always been rattling around in my brain since. I like the idea, suggested by the title, that cities are always in transition, and that sometimes death of a place comes before life, new life. 

Many of the cities I visited, Jakarta, Busan and Da Nang in particular, felt like they were in the throes of mass and rapid development, with whole areas being demolished to make way for something new, something better presumably. 

The images in the book are meant to nudge that question: are the cities living or dying, growing or atrophying? That is for the viewer to decide. 

RN: The title of your book is full of contradictions. What is your opinion about the ongoing massive city development in many cities around Asia? 

ÉdF: One cant help but get the feeling when in many Asian cities that you are in a race, a race to improve, to grow, to be more economically successful. But at what cost? More and more people are choosing to live in American style condos rather than houses on the street, which totally kills the street as no longer are there facades and shops, but instead you have huge gates, lobbies, garage doors and no interaction between those living on the street and the public. 

In Jakarta, in particular, there was a staggering contrast between the world at street level and other facilities such as shopping malls, complexes etc. Jakarta is the second largest megalopolis in the world and most of the city doesn’t even have a refuse collection service. The only thing worse than the traffic, garbage-clogged rivers and the poor infrastructure is the poverty. Yet, Jakarta is also home to some of the most luxurious shopping centres, office blocks and condos I’ve ever seen. But I have to wonder how much interaction there is between the world. I spoke to some people who said they were never on the street – the street was for the poor – and instead they were only at street level when travelling from their air-conditioned condos to the work or the mall. One felt the same feeling in places in Bangkok, where the street level is occupied only by auto-repair shops or the odd place to eat, and all the action instead exists in the malls. The streets themselves have become undesirable, so heavy is the pollution, so poor is the infrastructure and so attractive are the malls.

See the book here