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Photographing derelict sites, by Jonk

Jonk travels around the world in search of derelict sites he likes to photograph. He has just published a book, Goodbye Lenin, featuring places in the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries. He offers us advice and shares some thoughts on the art of photographing decay.

From the series Naturalia (Greenhouse, Belgium) © Jonk

How long have you been photographing derelict sites? 

I started about ten years ago. First, I went around some industrial wastelands around Paris, then I expanded my horizons. This turned into a growing passion, and I went on to travel more and more to different parts of the world. I discovered places other than industrial wastelands, such as abandoned hotels, hospitals, castles, schools, churches… 

What are some of the favorite places you’ve visited? 

At the top of the list is the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It’s a partly abandoned site managed by the Russian military… I saw defunct space shuttles and a rocket. It was quite an expedition! The security was very tight, and it was not easy to slip through the net. Next there is Chernobyl. The area is really the holy grail of industrial decay. I go there very regularly.

From the series Baïkonour © Jonk

What advice would you give someone who wants to get into this kind of photography? 

First of all, don’t be afraid to get on the road. If you want to make beautiful photographs, you must get yourself out there. You mustn’t be afraid of adventure, either. You might have to dodge security guards, and you have to keep your eyes peeled because the site might be dangerous. You don’t visit a wasteland the way you do the Palace of Versailles. You have to tread carefully. 

Does one need any special equipment? 

In terms of photography, I recommend that you start by getting a wide-angle lens, especially since you might be often dealing with cramped spaces. Next, a tripod, because you have to do long exposures, since such spaces are often pitch dark. You should have a bag with straps for your tripod, so that you can keep your hands free when climbing. Additionally, when it comes to clothing, I advise you wear a hiking outfit and thick-soled shoes, as you will often have to walk on nails, broken glass, etc. Finally, I recommend wearing a headlamp, which again will help you move around in the dark. 

From the series Goodbye Lenin (Theater, Ukraine) « LEARN MILITARY SCIENCE PROPERLY. LENIN » © Jonk

Do you need to adopt any particular behavior, such as paying attention to how dangerous a site is or being aware of trespass laws?

I would say that above all you must observe a certain ethic. For example, I never break into a place. If the place is completely shuttered, I never break a window or a door to get inside. This is not an option for me, even if I’ve come a long way to get there. Also, I never take anything that is lying around, even if some things might be quite valuable. I think it’s important to have respect for the place.

What do you like about derelict sites? 

I find they possess a special atmosphere. There’s a kind of incredible serenity. That’s why I love being there. Besides, the scenery is very photogenic. You can see the wear and tear of time: the peeling paint, the different shades of rust, nature reclaiming its rights… It’s this atmosphere that I’m looking for. My book, Goodbye Lenin, depicts a vanished world, a bygone time, like a Soviet theatre with an old propaganda banner still on display. I like what I call “time capsules.” I find them everywhere, but especially in Eastern Europe, where I’ve been travelling for five years now. I will soon be going to Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, to hunt for such “time capsules.”

From the series Goodbye Lenin (Military base, Ukraine) « DID YOU SIGN UP AS A VOLUNTEER?  » © Jonk

From the series Goodbye Lenin (Military base, Belarus) © Jonk

From the series Naturalia (Bar, Croatia) © Jonk

From the series Goodbye Lenin (Radar station, Ukraine) « AIR DEFENCE TROOPS OF LAND FORCES – CONSTANT ALERT TROOPS » © Jonk

From the series Naturalia (Garage, Belgium) © Jonk

Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Goodbye Lenin, Jonk


240 pages, €35

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