To find shuttered factories and industrial sites, photographer Hans Van Vrouwerf reads old news articles about companies that have gone under and uses Google Earth to locate them. Getting inside is an even bigger challenge: the Netherlands-based photographer, who works all over Europe, often has to enter through broken windows. Once, while wandering around a derelict Belgian factory with his camera, he was accosted by armed police officers wearing bulletproof vests. Curbed recently spoke with Van Vrouwerf about his jarringly beautiful interior shots, how it feels to be the only one inside a closed-down factory, and the fascinating objects that are left behind there.
CURBED: What's it like inside an abandoned factory?
Hans Van Vrouwerf: It's a bit eerie. There are sirens going off and lights still burning at the machines, but nobody is in there. The protective suits for handling the big bowls of liquid steel are just hanging there. People used to earn a living there but now it's empty, and nobody cares. It feels like you're in a scene of the movie Mad Max and all humanity is lost or battling for what is still left of the planet.
Are there many crumbling industrial sites in Europe?
'Many' isn't the right word, because it's still a big search to find them. I think the world economy is changing at such a fast pace that some companies can't keep up and the only solution is to close or leave the premises. Destruction of these buildings is usually too expensive, so they just leave it and let nature take over. But it can also happen that they move to another location and leave it as is. Can you imagine just leaving your house with everything in it to start somewhere else?
Do derelict factories have a different feel from other types of decaying buildings?
Industrial sites can be a bit depressing, mostly due to the fact people were fired, and you are inside a place where people used to earn their living. I've also seen places with thousands of dollars of stuff left in them, which is unbelievable. Usually the light and shadows show the beauty in buildings like this. Churches are different, abandoned because not enough people care about God anymore.
Where have you traveled in search of these sites?
I've traveled throughout Europe in search of these abandoned buildings, from deep in France to Poland and other countries. What I found there was decay and forgotten, almost eerie places that seem to grab you and just show you what happens when people leave and nature takes over. All of them have their own charm, but I favor the small houses, churches and monasteries.
What do you like about visiting religious buildings?
The best thing about visiting abandoned churches is that you can go everywhere. The complete silence, with only the sound of a camera shutter filling the space, is truly remarkable. When you visit a theater you feel like you're the star of the night but there is no audience to see you. Empty seats covered in mold remind you of better days and show you the last show was years ago, the only public you might have are pigeons (that can actually scare you with their strange noises).
What's your favorite building you've ever photographed?
My absolute number one is a Belgian monastery that has now been re-converted, which is a good thing. The old building had character, long hallways with peeling paint, and a lot of stuff was still there. The hallways were almost like a maze and it was a real joy to explore and photograph this building. Almost every building has its own character, and with the right amount of time and the correct light it can become extraordinary.
· Hans Van Vrouwerf [Official site]
· The Works of Hans Van Vrouwerf [Uncube Magazine]
· All Curbed Interviews posts [Curbed National]
· All Abandonment Issues posts [Curbed National]
· All Artistry posts [Curbed National]