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Portfolio: Alain Delorme

Shanghai's totems of consumerism

Ayoung man drags a ramshackle stack of furniture across a city on a makeshift cart; another pedals a colossal tower of cardboard boxes along the road, the load perched precariously above his tricycle. "The dizzying heights of these piles echo the incessant expansion of the buildings in the background," explains the French photographer Alain Delorme, who spent several weeks last year documenting the frenetic activity of China's most populous city, Shanghai.

These towering loads – or "totems", as Delorme calls them – are symbols of both a bustling boomtown and a reminder that the country's economic leaps forward have depended on the hard graft of an army of workers. At first glance, these workers are the Herculean heroes of this brave new world, able to balance and heave huge loads. But linger longer and Delorme's images take on a different dimension. "After a while I had the feeling that the objects they carried swallowed them," he reveals. These pictures aren't an ode to consumerism, then, but a reflection of our slavish clamouring for endless piles of goods.

Look closer still, and the loads seem to teeter at crazy angles, defying gravity. The piles have, in fact, been digitally exaggerated to question their role in the world's fastest-growing economy. "I wanted to show how small, traditional jobs in Shanghai life may soon disappear," explains Delorme – replaced, that is, by gleaming transport trucks bought by a city in hot pursuit of modernity.