The end of the line: Michael Wolf's photographs of the Tokyo rush hour will make every commuter shudder

An elbow in the back, the stench of sweat, no room to breathe...

Holly Williams
Saturday 15 January 2011 01:00

If you just close your eyes, maybe it will all go away. The odour of a stranger's sweat, the rattle and rush of the train, the feeling of your cheek being squashed against a grubby door, a fellow commuter's elbow jolting into your back.

Ah, rush hour. Photographer Michael Wolf spent 30 days in a Tokyo metro station, capturing the traumatised faces of commuters on their way to work. Their woeful expressions have now been immortalised in Wolf's photographic series, "Tokyo Compression". While the Tokyo subway between 7.45-8.45am each morning is a particularly crowded version of commuter hell, the horror Wolf has captured is recognisable all over the world – as anyone who's been on the Northern Line on a bad day can testify.

"It's the negative side of these mega-cities," he says. "My wife goes to work every day in Paris, and she hates it. You really need to compartmentalise yourself. You're breathing other people's sweat and perfume – and the proximity, one body touching the next, is horrible. It's made by humans; we did this to ourselves."

The photographs were all taken at one station on Tokyo's Odakyu Line – the only stop where Wolf could get really close to the train windows. "Every 80 seconds a new train runs in," explains Wolf. "When the commuters get in and are pushed against a window, I'm two inches away from that window."

Having a camera shoved in their faces didn't make the commuters any more cheerful. "No one was pleased with it," admits Wolf. "My being there made them suddenly aware of how horrible the situation is and they were ashamed of it, but there was nothing they could do. They couldn't move away, leave the train, so some people tried to hide behind their hands. Others had this idea that if they closed their eyes, and they couldn't see me, then somehow I couldn't see them."

'Tokyo Compression' by Michael Wolf is published by Peperoni Books, priced €28, available at An exhibition of the photographs is currently running at the Forum fur Fotografie in Cologne

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