Abandoned Places: The urban exploration of Henk Van Rensenbergen










The Abandoned Places photo book series documents the places of work, entertainment, habitation and welfare humans leave behind. To mark its third volume, the series’ author, Belgian pilot-cum-photographer Henk van Rensbergen tells Umbrella what he’s seen on his latest travels, why he does what he does and what his work tell us about our species’ place on Earth

Your latest book, Abandoned Places 3 is out. Where did you go this time? Any highlights?The book is even more international, covering Poland, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Iceland, to the USA, the Caribbean and Japan. Obviously, Japan is a highlight : because it hasn't been documented this way before by westerners. It's a closed society, very hard to communicate with and understand. Also the places I visited were very different: here it's the small things that matter, it's all in the details and the culture of these people. There’s very little vandalism in Japan, everything is preserved exactly as it was left behind – it’s very special.

In the places you visit, do you ever get the feeling that people didn't mean to leave these places permanently – and that they were just popping out?
I think when people leave a place, they always hope or think that somehow they’ll return. I have the feeling that people can't grasp the idea that they’re closing the door for the place to go into irreversible decay. Very often you find a lot of personal stuff, tools, photos, paperwork… just left behind and then forgotten. All this makes it so intriguing to ‘read’ and ‘reconstruct’ the past, also using your imagination and emotions.

You often seem to end up at hospitals, but we notice there's a special melancholy attached to places that were originally built for leisure, like the Western Village or the Nara Dreamland amusement park in Japan. Do these places seem especially sad?
It's not so much the sadness that attracts me, but rather the mystery of these places and the absence of humans. My photos may show empty buildings, but it’s actually about the people that no longer live there (and the stuff they left behind).

In amusement parks the silence is even more obvious: the cheering of kids in 
rollercoasters have been replaced by absolute silence. We can all relate to amusement parks, we've all been there as kids. When we wander around one now, we recognise the attractions but at the same time they're overgrown by nature, they're rusting and they make grinding noises in the wind. That’s very eerie, sometimes hilarious, emotional, funny or moving, but in my opinion not exclusively sad! 

How does the process work? Do just arrive in a place and go for a look about? Or is it planned beforehand?
I usually know the location – coordinates – of a specific place, but how to get in, without braking of forcing anything, and preferably unnoticed, is always a challenge.

Have you ever been hurt in your explorations?
There have been many occasions where I could have hurt myself badly, but fortunately I've always noticed the danger before it could get me. That being said, you never know when a ceiling will collapse or where the toxics are. It's a matter of common sense – and washing your hands before snacking.

Have you had any ‘interesting’ meeting with security?
I've avoided a lot, but not all of them. It's the reason why I never break my way in, and I never take anything and obviously never vandalise stuff. That makes it more credible to explain what I'm doing there. Knowing that I operate in some sort of grey zone, I try to be professional and honest in what I do.

What equipment do you use?
A Canon digital reflex camera with a set of professional lenses. A good tripod for long exposures. I normally always use natural light, even if that means minute long exposure times. Only if there is no light at all I will ‘light paint’ with a flash.

What are the positive effects of documenting abandoned buildings?
As you say: “documenting” means just that. The benefit of it is that a visual memory of the place will remain. When Eugène Atget documented Paris in his time,  he probably never thought his photos would have such a success (decades later). That obviously has a lot to do with his qualities as photographer, but also with the fact that what may seem normal today, will look exotic in a couple of decades. Apart from documenting, I try to capture the soul of these places.

Have any of the buildings you've covered been restored later on?
Yes, some places have been cleaned up, re-converted or restored. They're just not the same any more after this… they’ll serve a new purpose, and that's a good thing, but I've lost interest.

What do you think our abandonment of buildings and places tells us about us and our morality?
It's typical of a rich society without demographic pressure: we can afford to leave buildings empty, and build new ones next to them, and we don't desperately need the empty space to house people. You won't find the abandoned places that I photograph in overpopulated and/or third world countries. The question of morals pops up when beautiful, valuable places are purposely left rotting by owners who speculate. Even protected buildings collapse due lack of care and money, and are then demolished and replaced by profitable but ugly new apartments.

How does it make you feel that the places you inhabit may one day become abandoned too?
It's something that’s hard to imagine up front. It's like trying to explain to a kid that one day he will die of old age. But these are not the questions that haunt me. Abandoned places don't evoke a feeling of sadness and unavoidable destiny. It's the thrill of mystery and what I may (re)discover, like an archaeologist discovering an ancient civilization.

Abandoned Places 3 is published Lannoo, www.lannoo.com. Find out more about Henk at his website:  www.henkvanrensbergen.com



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