Raphael Olivier : China’s Ghost Town

Nov 19, 2015
Photographer Spotlight

When I think of ghost towns I usually picture something out of the wild west cowboy era–old abandoned saloons with dusty and deserted streets. Photographer Raphael Olivier however, will tell you that's not always the case. 

Raphael recently returned from Ordos in Northern China, a city that boasts grandiose architecture, it's filled with office towers, administrative centers, government buildings, museums, theaters, sports fields and acres of houses and apartments. Ordos was originally built to house over 1 million people, yet virtually no one lives there and to the dismay of local officials it's been dubbed "China's ghost town" by various media outlets. Located in a province rich with natural resources (coal, gas, rare earth metals) investors and local officials poured money into the infrastructure and real estate of the town. But the prices of property being much too high discouraged potential buyers and the only people who actually moved in were local government officials and migrant workers who could earn more to live here, thanks to a special relocation bonus.

Raphael was fascinated with the deserted urban environment, its architecture and the way people interact with the urban space. He felt that previous coverage of this project, one of China's biggest fails during its over-ambitious construction frenzy, had not done it justice and were all very similar in tone and imagery. Feeling that there was much more to see than just the few cliches like key landmarks, and empty streets he finally decided to take a trip he's been dreaming of for years. 

Since I'm keen to photograph architecture and urban stories, Ordos has always sounded to my ears like a giant chocolate cake that I could have all to myself. I think most urban photographers would agree to call this place a kind of Mecca of architectural photography, perhaps a little bit like a "Chinese Detroit". Actually I'm quite surprised that not so much in-depth work has been done on the subject. When I got there I found much more amazing structures that I actually expected to see, I could not find most of these buildings while doing research online.

Despite the fact that the city is heavily covered in the media Raphael was unable to find enough detailed information online about the area. So with no solid plan, he decided to just go and explore on his own and quickly discovered that in a city this spread out, with hardly any public transportation, was going to be difficult to get around.


There are a few taxis in the "center" but out in the surrounding areas there is no transport anymore, and no people. I mostly had to walk hours and hours everyday, usually on empty roads, wastelands, even sometimes through sand dunes. I got lucky a few times and could hitch rides from construction trucks passing by. 

Although he has no plans to return to Ordos in the near future, the photos Raphael say fit perfectly into his larger project documenting the urbanization of China. 

Every trip I take inside China is always a massive slap in the face. No matter how many years I've lived here and how many giant cities I've seen, I always end up standing in awe with my camera around my neck and telling myself "this is so unreal". Every time I am just amazed by the scale of what I see, and the incredible architectural violence unfolding before my eyes. Urbanization in China today is no light subject, it is truly a very hardcore phenomenon that I am trying to give a glimpse of through my photography, yet I am still trying to grasp the reality of it for myself and there is still a lot of work to be done.

To see more of Raphael's work visit raphaelolivier.com

Tags: china chinese architecture ordos raphael olivier reportage photography