The Stunning Loneliness of Megacities at Night

Last year the United Kingdom appointed its first minister for loneliness, partly in response to an official study finding that over 9 million UK residents often or always feel lonely. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Prime Minister Theresa May said at the time.

One of those 9 million people is photographer Aristotle Roufanis, who moved to London from his native Greece a few years ago to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts. “Even though I had many friends and family there, I felt very isolated,” Roufanis recalls. “It started to become very heavy for me.” When he brought up the subject with his London friends, he discovered that many of them felt the same way but were reluctant to acknowledge it. “No one admits they’re lonely. It’s easier to admit you have a disease than that you feel isolated.”

Roufanis, who earned his undergraduate degree in civil engineering, came to believe that the way large metropolises like London are designed is partly responsible for why people feel so lonely in them. “Cities are built for efficiency and not necessarily for social interaction,” he says. “The bigger the city, the lonelier we feel. It’s a paradox.”

For his latest photography project, Roufanis decided to tackle the problem of urban loneliness head-on. Each work in the series Alone Together comprises hundreds or even thousands of individual photographs that Roufanis took of cities at night, then digitally stitched together into immersive, large-scale panoramas. For each city Roufanis photographed—London, Paris, Athens, Hong Kong, and Mexico City—he chose a high-altitude vantage point and spent all night there, shooting images of the cityscape with Hasselblad and Sony A7 digital cameras. Back in his studio, he used software programs PTGui and Autopano Giga to assemble the original photographs into the final composition, a process that took up to six months per work.

The resulting images have extraordinarily high resolution—the largest are 8 gigapixels wide and take up hundreds of gigabytes of memory. Roufanis uses his own large-format printer to print the works, since “very few labs in the world are willing to spend that much time with you.” Most of the photographs in the series are displayed in 10-foot-wide prints, although, because of their high resolution, they could technically be printed at 10 times that size.

The images are nearly all-black except for the dozens of lighted windows scattered throughout the urban landscapes, evidence of tenuous human activity amid the darkened office blocks and apartment towers. Often, the people or objects inside the lighted windows suggest a narrative—the images repay the viewer’s close attention, especially at full size.

Roufanis sees the lighted windows, each of which he hand-picked from a myriad of options, as signs of hope. It was only by opening up about his loneliness to friends and family that Roufanis finally realized how common the condition was. “By talking about it, I felt better. A lot better. So that’s what I’m trying to do with this project,” he says. “I’m trying to convey an optimistic message hidden in a sad reality.”

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