Romain Veillon is one of France’s most talented contemporary photographers, an expert in transforming sites of abandonment and decay into startling images of serene beauty. Culture Trip interviewed him about his inspirations and techniques, humanity’s relationship with the environment, and his new book Ask the Dust.
Culture Trip (CT): Where did the initial inspiration come from to photograph abandoned spaces?
Romain Veillon (RV): I’ve been fascinated by them since childhood. I would imagine that, like many people, discovering the decaying house at the end of the street is a memory we all have deep inside of us. For me, it was the abandoned truck factory of my grandmother that I used to explore every summer. When I encounter such a place, my goal is that everybody can travel in the past with me and make up the stories they want to. To me, my pictures act as a new kind of memento mori: they are here to remind us that everything has an end, and that we should enjoy it while it lasts.
CT: Where was the first place you photographed, and has the way you approach a location changed significantly over time?
RV: My first real exploration as a photographer was the Molitor pool in Paris. I wasn’t living too far away from it myself when I was young, and I had the chance to go there several times. My mother went there too when she was young; she also has a lot of memories of the place. My approach evolved a little bit, as I was more interested in the exploration at the beginning. But slowly, the esthetic became more important to me, and I focus on trying to restore the atmosphere of a place in a single picture with a specific use of a powerful light.
CT: How much research into a location’s history do you do before you shoot it? If any, do you share this information when you exhibit the finished photographs?
RV: It’s important to say that most of the work is done before, to find the locations, which means a lot of time spent researching the place itself and its history. The internet is, of course, a great source of knowledge. People around you or other photographers are also great sources of news. Books can also be a big help.
Once located, you need to go there, which is not that easy when you have to cross half of Europe for it. Sometimes when a place is well-known and accessible for everyone (like Buzludzha for example), I write a report to explain the history of the place so that people can better understand the meaning of my photographs. But most of the time, I try to protect the locations from vandals and thieves, so I don’t give too much information, so people don’t find out where it is.
CT: How much staging is involved, in terms of the placement of furniture, belongings, or debris?
RV: Personally, I never stage the locations I go to; I prefer to leave them the way they are. I only remove trash cans or papers sometimes. I want my audience to see the rooms as I have seen them. Of course, I know other photographers might have staged them before me but I won’t do the same. I think it’s really important to try to have the most authenticity possible in the way you present the places you explore.
CT: What do you think it says about humans that we construct such grand buildings and attractions, only to leave them to decay?
RV: Hopefully, not all our buildings end up in decay! Only a part of them know such a fate. The causes for this social trend can be multiple: maybe the area is not economically attractive anymore, other reasons are even more difficult to guess (a death in the family, issues with the inheritance, natural disaster, money problems, or just that the people wanted to leave and had no offer to sell).
CT: In some of your pictures, nature has clearly taken over where humans have fled, and is well on its way to erasing the marks they’ve left. What do you think this says about the power balance between people and their environment?
RV: That’s what I prefer working on, when ivy takes over everything. We can see what the world could look like if humans disappeared from the earth. We are all fascinated by this post-apocalyptic vision. Maybe we need to be the witness of that, to enjoy what we have and the time in front of us. As I said before, the main thing for me is that people create their own stories when they are looking at my photographs.
To me, I feel like being the witness of a nature that always finds a way to grow and expand despite human constructions. On the other hand, some pictures have clearly an environmental message. When you see how humans created a giant garbage pile in an underground cavern, or how nature can be strong and beautiful when man is not around, it’s a way of reminding us what can happen if we continue to despise our environment.
CT: Our culture currently has a taste for reclaiming and renovating spaces. Do you ever feel an urge to ‘save’ these buildings?
RV: It is a habit when you visit an abandoned building to imagine how and what it could be if it was renovated. Obviously, I would love to save them all, but I believe herein lies the heart of the problem. We can’t save them all, if we want to be honest with ourselves; governments don’t have enough money. But there are still a great number of buildings that could and should be protected and restored. So, there should be an in-depth thought process from each country’s cultural minister and the local population to decide which buildings deserve the most to benefit from protection in respect of their history, power to attract tourists and their places in the heart of the population.
CT: Has there ever been a building that you wished you could have restored to its former glory?
RV: It’s hard to pick only one, maybe the casino of Constanta, or a little chapel in the south of France.
CT: You’ve described the spaces you shoot as having become ‘stuck in time’, but your work also has the ability to bend time in them, both forwards, as you’ve alluded to, to a post-apocalyptic future but also backwards. Had this notion occurred to you before?
RV: Yes, I already had this thought while discussing the post-apocalyptic view we are all obsessed with. The basic view is to see all those rooms and spaces as if they were stuck in time, because people know I have been there in the past few years. But if you stop being down to earth and begin to get lost in these pictures without thinking of the context, it’s true that it could look like a future world where mankind is on the breach of extinction.
You are right, Buzludzha is a very good example. It was the communist headquarters in Bulgaria, it was built for a very high price and was only used a few times before the fall of communism in 1989. Its very unique shape heightens this impression of being lost in time when you are exploring this incredible place.
In the end, it’s also because we just love trying to figure out how the world would look like if humans disappeared. It explains the huge success of some series about zombies, or survival in a dark future.
CT: What can you tell us about your new book?
RV: Ask the Dust is a compilation of my work until 2016 around Europe and with two specials reports of Kolmanskop in Namibia and Epecuén in Argentina. And don’t worry, it’s an English publisher, so the texts are also in English. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it. I hope a second volume will come in the next few years. Bon voyage!