Ordos: An Architectural Photographic Study of a Ghost Town


All images by Raphael Olivier. Used with permission.

When Raphael Olivier moved to China, he made it a task to visit Ordos. Now that he’s leaving, he chose to showcase his visit on Behance. Ask any millennial about what Ordos is and if they’re the geeky computer gamer type like me, they’d probably reference it to Frank Herbert’s Dune as one of the warring factions fighting for control of the spice. And to be honest, that’s kind of what this town looks a bit like.

Raphael calls it a ghost town: it’s a spot that was built fast and cheap without any sort of long term vision. And so the city failed. So these days, it’s a surreal landscape with mostly empty streets, abandoned buildings, half-finished projects, etc.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.


Raphael: I started photography like many people, travelling around the world as a backpacker, shooting a bit of everything like landscapes, people, architecture, street life. When digital cameras arrived, I got more into it, more seriously. I got a few pictures published in magazines. I also started working for a fashion company in Vietnam and taking photos for them. Then one thing leading to another, I started meeting studios, agencies, other photographers…and soon enough I was offered a position as staff photographer for a local photo agency. This is when things really got started, I started shooting full time and my entire life just built itself around being a photographer.


Phoblographer: What made you want to do a short landscape documentary project on Ordos?

Raphael: I’ve always been fascinated by cities. I think that’s what attracted me to Asia in the first place, I wanted to live in “crazy” cities, full of people, full of energy, with millions of streets, lanes, backyards and rooftops to explore. This taste for the urban element has manifested in my work in the form of architectural photography and urban documentary, which is something that comes back regularly without planning, it just happens. I don’t think of myself as a very intellectual photographer, I am more emotional and intuitive. I shoot on impulse, what I like, what seduces me, and in many cases that happens to be urban spaces.


Phoblographer: Tell us the story about Ordos that first inspired you to go there.

Raphael: I first heard about Ordos about 8 years ago. At the time Ordos was starting to make quite a few headlines internationally and getting some attention from journalists and photographers. It sounded so unreal, so incredibly out of this world, and that’s when I told myself I would have to visit this place one day. Then I moved to China, started working there, got trapped in my daily routine, and actually never made it to Ordos. It’s only recently, as I have decided to leave China and move on to new horizons, that I told myself I couldn’t leave without seeing this city. So I just packed my camera bag and headed there without much more thinking.


Phoblographer: So the city was abandoned; and obviously seems to be great for photography. With all this said, do you feel the project is over and done with now or there is more exploration to be done?

Raphael: Ordos is quite a famous topic and it has been covered numerous times. However, from what I’ve seen, stories are always quite similar: a few key monuments, a few empty streets, a text denouncing the over-ambitious urban plans of China, and not much more.


Even if my work on Ordos also falls into this category, I tried to push it a bit more, to cover a wider variety of sites, and to inject a more personal feel to the images, not only descriptive but also emotional. I guess I wanted my images to be a little bit sad and poetic. But of course there is so much more to see there, so many stories. This place is huge, and it’s really crazy, everywhere. I feel there are dozens of stories that could be done in each district of Ordos. About the people living there. About how the city is already falling appart 10 years only after being built. It’s a fascinating spot.

Phoblographer: Artistically speaking, how do you feel the city lends itself to creating really excellent photos considering your background in photographing cityscapes?


Raphael: Actually not great. Surprisingly it’s not such an easy place to shoot. It’s mostly flat, very spread out, with very poor transportation and very few nice view points. It’s a place where any photographer ends up spending a lot of time at street level, in vast empty areas, without transport. You end up walking a lot, hours and hours, in harsh weather, only for a few shots. Other cities in Asia are just so much fun to navigate with taxis, subways, ferries, elevators, cable cars. Ordos is not like this, it’s just flat and empty. But for anyone who takes the time to explore, it’s a very rewarding experience, it’s really a very special place.