Surreal Photo Series Shows Shanghai Like You've Never Seen It Before

By Dominic Ngai, January 4, 2019

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The sun has just risen, and several Shanghainese aunties are enjoying a lively conversation in between their coordinated tai chi sword routines, taking turns firing approximately 60 syllables per minute in the local dialect at one another. One block over, vendors at a bustling wet market are having a good start to their day, with a range of produce, seafood and freshly cut meat flying off the shelves. And as dawn turns into day, the streets start to fill up with pedestrians, cyclists and motorists speeding past towards the office buildings nearby. 

Image by Alexis Goodwin

As of a couple of years ago, many of these scenes could still be commonly seen, heard and experienced on a typical day all around the Laoximen area. But as the gentrification process for the neighborhood intensifies in recent months, one of the oldest parts of the city has become much emptier than ever before.

In his photo series ‘Shanghai Dreams,’ London-based photographer and digital artist Alexis Goodwin (@alexisogoodwin) goes one step further to create a surreal world in which all of the city’s background noises and its eclectic mix of old and modern architecture are almost completely stripped away, switching the focus to just one person or a small group of individuals going about their daily lives.

Image by Alexis Goodwin

Goodwin, a former Shanghai resident, lived and worked in the Laoximen area from 2013 to 2017. During that time, he shot and accumulated dozens of photos on the streets of his neighborhood. “Photography is a new medium for me. It’s something that I started taking more seriously when I was living in Shanghai,” the professional photo retoucher tells me over the phone. “On a good day, I’d carry my camera to work with me and take a longer route between my commute from my home to my office, and I’d snap pictures of interesting things I see on the road.” 

“I approached the series more like an illustrator and less like a photographer” 

The post-production process of the ‘Shanghai Dreams’ series didn’t take place until after he had repatriated to England. For Goodwin, who has worked on ad campaigns for clients like Nike, Budweiser and Perrier, this is where he can get creative with images. “As I was taking these photos, I didn’t really have the idea to erase the background,” Goodwin explains. “What appeals to me about this style is that I can change a lot of things. If the composition of a photo isn’t great, I can improve it by editing things out or moving things around. I’d keep bits and pieces that are interesting in… I guess I approached the series more like an illustrator and less like a photographer.” 

Image by Alexis Goodwin

Goodwin’s game plan was to peel off as much of the background as possible to create scenes that could only be found in modern day China, but can’t be defined by a specific city. Some of his favorite shots are the ‘emptiest,’ like the one that features an old woman sitting on the sidewalk, staring at a passerby coming her way. In the final product, it almost seemed like she was invited into a professional studio and was photographed on a white backdrop. “It’s a hard discipline to keep the shots as minimalistic as possible,” he admits. “You’re always tempted to add more stuff in.”

Image by Alexis Goodwin

Some of the most intriguing photos of the series, however, were taken at a local wet market. Here, the canvases are filled up a little more than shots taken in other locations, with vendors sharing the limelight with the markets’ iconic lamps and their colorful mix of products. “One of the most challenging part of making the series for me is taking pictures of the people,” he says. “You almost don’t want them to notice you if you want the shots to be natural, which is difficult when you’re in a confined space like a wet market.” 

Image by Alexis Goodwin

When asked whether he could replicate the concept of the ‘Shanghai Dreams’ series in his current home of London, Goodwin says: “That’s actually something that I’ve been asking myself. Right now, I don’t feel as inspired by the culture here since it isn’t as foreign to me [compared to China]. But I’d like to do something similar in Chongqing. I haven’t visited before, but from the images that I’ve seen, the city has even more of that gritty element than Shanghai. For me, that is always more interesting than the modern side of a city.”

Cover image by Alexis Goodwin. To see more of his work, visit his Behance page.

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