City of Masks — Pollution and the Street Photographer

As a street photographer I’ve become very conscious of “particulate matter” (PM) in the atmosphere of our major cities. You can call it “pollution” but PM refers specifically to the microscopic particles that float in the air — and which we breathe into our lungs unless we wear a mask.

A few months ago Bangkok became a “City of Masks” when a cloud of pollution lingered over the city for several weeks, making the atmosphere even worse than usual. If you think pollution is bad in London or Los Angeles, then Bangkok in these conditions is terrible, but even then, far surpassed by Indian cities such as Mumbai or Delhi.

I ventured out on to the streets day after day, gulping down bad air while photographing people in masks. I got a few OK shots, including this one on Christmas Day:

The poster says “MadeinTYO” (TYO=Tokyo), which may remind us that the ubiquitous wearing of respiratory masks in the street is a practice that started in Japan. Yet back in Europe, people began to notice that Japanese tourists would often wear masks on the street even on a clear day. Whatever was going on?

In fact, the Japanese nearly always wear a mask if they have a cold. Out of concern for others they keep the cold to themselves: a laudable practice — and quite the opposite of what we often experience in the west. Here it’s not uncommon to be blasted with a sneeze aimed straight at one’s head. I’ve come close to punching someone who does that!

Alas, there’s another reason to wear a mask and it’s called PM2.5. This is particulate matter with an individual particle size of 2.5 micrometres (microns) or less (which is about 3% the width of a human hair). You can’t see these particles with the naked eye, but you can certainly sense their presence.

PM2.5 particles are much smaller than such pollutants as dust, mould or pollen. They come from vehicle exhausts, wood burning, forest fires, airplanes and power plants. They penetrate deep into the lungs, reaching the circulatory system itself and causing heart and lung disease.

Here’s the Rap
NOTE: Yes, I know, “MadeinTYO” is actually the name of an American rap artist, in fact the brother of “Rolls Royce Ritzy” who changed his name recently to “24hrs.” I don’t know if either of them sing about air pollution, but it’s only a matter of time before a rap artist adopts the name “PM2.5.” ZebraX already sings about it.

Post Measles
To continue the narrative: my Bangkok street photography came to a grinding halt at the beginning of the year when I caught measles. Maybe someone sneezed on me! Anyway, the resulting pulmonary wheeziness which hung around for a few weeks after I recovered made me very aware of the polluted atmosphere.

I started wearing a mask.

Interestingly (and despite a few people cackling with laughter at the unusual sight of a westerner with a mask) I found street photography easier to do, especially when the subject was also wearing one. There seemed to be a confederacy of mask-wearers of which I was previously unaware.

Looking for Variations
I started looking for variations on the theme of masks, first by seeing how many mask-wearers I could get into the frame. My featured image (at the top of the article) shows no fewer than five people in masks, two of whom are probably Japanese.

Next, I tried to find correspondences between a mask and a nearby object:

In the above shot the bicycle wheel looks like it’s wearing a mask, but that’s a bit ironic as it’s supposedly a non-polluting form of transport. It’s certainly eye-catching in its (high polluting) plastic wrapper.

There’s a kind of visual correspondence in the next shot, too. I’m not sure if the lady was wearing a mask or a “burqa lite,” but she happened to be passing a coil of black cables… then there’s the red and white cones… plus the red and black coach… It all comes together, and no, the shot wouldn’t be better in black and white.

I think I’d rather breathe in PM2.5 than shoot with a dedicated B&W camera.