AQI 360, Shiziazhuang. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

China is disappearing into a haze of pollution. In the capital, it’s a “life-or death situation,” as Beijing’s mayor bluntly put it in January. In February, he went so far as to declare his city unlivable.

“Everyone must decide for himself if he wants to care about something,” artist Benedikt Partenheimer told In Sight. Partenheimer’s photographs “Particulate Matter” call attention to China’s decades-old air-pollution problem. “Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives,” Partenheimer said. “I personally think that this is a very good reason to care.”

In recent years, China has changed the way it talks about its pollution problem. The government publishes updates in real time on the degree of air pollution in the Air Quality Index (AQI). The index rates the smog labels such as “good,” “unhealthy” and “hazardous.”

Partenheimer’s series uses AQI as a reference for the viewer:

AQI 0-50 – Good
AQI 51-100 – Moderate
AQI 101-150 – Unhealthy for sensitive groups
AQI 151-200 – Unhealthy
AQI 201-300 – Very unhealthy
AQI 300-500 – Hazardous

AQI 400, Shanghai. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

“Particulate Matter,” the name of Partenheimer’s series, is also known as particle pollution – fine particulates of chemicals, metals, acids, soil and dust that contribute to the city’s haze and are small enough to infect the bloodstream and trigger asthmatic attacks.

“Of course one can feel the effects of air pollution,” Partenheimer said about working on the project.

He began “Particulate Matter” while he was an artist in residence in Shanghai. Partenheimer shot the project with an analog camera on a tripod which forced him to work slowly but he said that it allowed him to work “deliberately and precisely.” Partenheimer said “photography is just another way to examine and to explore the world and to critically engage with it.”  While working on the project he wore a mask but said “after a few hours outside I would always have this strange, kind of metallic taste in my mouth. ”

Although China is trying to curb its carbon emissions, it has a long way to go. Last year, 66 of China’s 74 major cities failed to meet basic standards of air quality. As the New Yorker pointed out, if Beijing reaches its target of reducing particle pollution by 25 percent by the year 2017, it would still have double the Chinese national standard and six times what the World Health Organization recommends.

“I think we have reached a point in history where we seriously have to think about how we want to proceed as a species and how we want to treat the world we inhabit,” Partenheimer said. “Air pollution is just one example of how humans affect and destroy the environment … We tend to get caught up in our everyday lives and problems, and that’s okay, but there are many other things that deserve and need our attention.”

AQI 330. Forbidden City.(Benedikt Partenheimer)

AQI 370, Shanghai. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

AQI 350, a picture of the Sun. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

AQI 380, Shanghai. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

AQI 390, Shanghhai. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

AQI 430, Shanghai. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

AQI 440, Huangpu River. (Benedikt Partenheimer)

Benedikt Partenheimer is a finalist in the Syngenta Photography Awards. You can see more of his work on his Web site.