“I wanted to make sure I captured the workers – the bones and guts of the building – before they disappeared and were covered up with cladding and shiny surfaces,” says Noah Sheldon, photographer and filmmaker who currently resides between Shanghai and New York.
As a futuristic symbol of China’s skyline, the Shanghai Tower sits proudly at 632 metres above ground – a rocketing building that breaks deep into the skyline. Noah was assigned to photograph the tower’s development for the design firm, Gensler. While producing the architectural images, that’s when Noah began to seize the opportunity: “I think I became more interested in the workers and the process of building the tower, rather than the tower itself. It was incredible to see the brilliant engineering and techniques used to construct the tower, but equally as amazing to see the very human hand in that construction.”
With a knack for finding the beauty in an overbearing and materialistic world, Noah’s series, Shanghai Tower, documents the captivating craft and livelihood of the workers. “During my trips to the construction site, I became fascinated with watching the workers and the process of constructing the tower,” Noah tells It’s Nice That. “I’d see the same men and women again and again – they were often in crews that stuck together, moving from construction site to construction site. Each member of any given crew was generally from the same home town.”
Like most large Chinese construction projects, Shanghai Tower was built by migrant workers from surrounding cities and rural areas. “When spending time at the site, I found it hard not to notice the workers. They kept the whole show going and they were endlessly fascinating to watch and document,” explains Noah. Capturing “pride and physical confidence”, these colourful personalities were seemingly unavoidable to the eye of a photographer: “I thought all of them had such character and I think that comes across in their portraits,” he says.
“Even though they are all in uniforms and workwear, they managed to personalise and add their own style to their outfits. Many of them had such expressive faces – I also remember vividly unexpected bodies. There would be wiry men with slight frames and huge muscular arms out of nowhere. While most of the workers were male, there were quite a lot of amazing women workers doing just as manual labour as the men. The variety and personalities were incredible.”
Taking a completely different approach to how other people would photograph a construction site, many were perplexed by Noah’s intentions. “A lot of the workers were baffled as to why I wanted to photograph them. Convincing them to stand for me was the biggest challenge; some were suspicious of what I might do with their images or if they were going to get in trouble,” says Noah. “Yet once they were in front of the camera, it became about the same issues as taking anyone’s portrait: not knowing where to look or what to do with their hands.”
The Shanghai Tower now reigns as a symbol for the architectural development in China; its completion marks the finale of a breathlessly fast transformation. It’s now difficult to imagine the Pugdong landscape without the tremendous tower, but Noah still finds an essence of nostalgia linked to its growth: “When I visit it now I miss the rawness of the structure and the scaffolding. I find some of the surfaces and programing a turn off. I am looking forward to seeing it ten years from now.”
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