Capturing the Lost Spirit of Deserted Places Through Photography

Guided by a curiosity of an almost hypnotic nature, Belgian photographer Reginald Van de Velde captures the beauty of abandoned places all over the world, having developed a special obsession for cooling towers, for their “unique” and “other-wordly” architecture. You see the flooded ruins of struts and pipes in what used to be a powerhouse of industrial activity, and you immediately feel a sudden thrill of all the actions and reactions that have ever taken place there, all kinds of details that will encourage your mind to wander and dream about what has – and has never – been. Such is the power of photographs, a power which is especially strong for those that depict abandoned places.


Referring to his motivation as an artist, Reginald says: “I reflect upon my younger years a lot. We were without a care in the world, already exploring beyond the boundaries of any rules that could be imposed on us. Escapism is at the basis of my explorations today, and it’s the solitude I want to capture and show through my photographs.”

What started as a local adventure for a 14-year-old has now become a world-wide passion. After Reginald had explored all the industrial areas in Belgium, he started to photograph those in France, UK, Germany, Italy, and even beyond. Apart from the cooling towers, the Belgian artist is also focusing on brutalist socialist-era monuments scattered throughout the Balkans, a project that started in 2013.


The Plus: How did you get into photography – and particularly this line of photography?
Reginald Van de Velde:
I Started way back when I was 14 years old. My dad gave me an old analogue Pentax camera, and I started to experiment with long exposure shots, and black & white film. And so it happened that the town where I grew up featured a lot of abandoned sites: castles, villas, and some factories. From a very young age my friends and I would venture into those forbidden structures and make them ours, turning them into our playgrounds. I’ve been documenting abandoned places since my childhood – on an irregular basis. Things really took off when I bought my first DSLR, in 2007. The same year someone pointed out that this thing I do has a name: Urban Exploration.


TP: These are abandoned sites in various states of decay; is it dangerous work? Also, how did you find those cooling towers?
It’s dangerous, for sure. Once the roof starts to leak and water gets inside, the place is lost. Walls start to rot, roof tiles come down, floors start to crumble. Big industrial sites pose the risks of high drops and missing infrastructure. One needs to be extremely careful at all times. My camera has already dropped a couple of times because of cracking floorboards. Luckily it survived…and me as well.

About my fascination for cooling towers: this series started way back in 2009. It was the time I visited a decommissioned power plant in Charleroi, Belgium. The plant was huge and featured a cooling tower to get rid of excess heat. I was so curious to find out what the interior of a cooling tower looked like, and upon entering it I was just baffled. The scale and dimensions were outrageous. The architecture was mind-blowing. The feeling was other-wordly. It was love at first sight.


This peculiar visit triggered my desire to explore other cooling towers. I researched industrial zones in Belgium and tried to pinpoint towers by using Google Maps. Once I visited all the cooling towers Belgium had to offer, I expanded my working area to France, UK, Germany, Italy, and even beyond. It’s incredible how many towers I have done so far, and not a single one had an identical design to another. Each tower has its unique architecture, and I will never get bored of exploring them.

TP: When you travelled to these abandoned places, did you travel alone? How do you feel about those journeys?
It’s not advisable to travel and explore alone. You always face the risk of being locked inside a building or crashing through a rotten floor and finding yourself stuck with a mobile phone that has no carrier reception. The company of an exploring buddy makes it so much easier and more comfortable; you feel safe when someone tags along. And this is also the only way to share those experiences and live up the moment. Didn’t Christopher McCandless once write, “Happiness is only real when shared”?


TP: When you are in those places, do they feel like abandoned buildings, or have they become something in their own right?
They have become something on their own. It’s the atmosphere of a place that hits you. You enter a world that no one ever visits, that no one ever sees. Time has a different meaning in such a place, it has no essence. It’s a world within a world.


TP: Apart from these cooling towers, have you visited any sites recently that you’ve found particularly compelling?
I’m slowly building up my collection of Brutalist socialist-era monuments scattered throughout the Balkans. It’s a journey that started in 2013 and probably will take quite a few years to complete. The list of these forgotten monuments is endless and I find them to be incredibly amazing, architecturally.


TP: Imagine an apocalypse in which all the world’s buildings are abandoned; which would you be most interested in photographing?
New York City would definitely top the charts. Imagine Manhattan in a deteriorated state with crumbling buildings all over the place and vegetation kicking in… The once so vibrant city in a dormant state! Metro systems shut down, Central Park becoming a jungle, billboards at Times Square scattered and broken, Grand Central Station vacant, the suspension cables of the famous bridges falling apart. Stunning. New York, yes!


TP: Photographers may not share locations of the abandoned spaces they photographed, would you share? And if so (or not), how do you want people change or use those abandoned buildings?
Personally, I’m keeping things secret. It adds a certain layer of mystique to the photographs, and it prevents folks of going to these places with the possibility of the place being looted, vandalised or bricked up. That scares me so much. What I do like is when a place gets restored to its full glory. It’s fascinating to see a building in a neglected way one day, and returning to that place many years later to find out it was reconverted into something beautiful. Reconversion is a good thing; demolition is not.


TP: Where next?
So much to do, so little time. I’m always making plans, and my next trip will probably be eastbound, towards Asia.