by Dilpreet BhullarApr 03, 2022
Green Urbex, subtitled 'The World Without Us', develops as a visual odyssey through corners of the planet that civilisation touched, and eventually withdrew from. The “human” hand at this site of emergence endures in the form of structures that we built, and the fixtures and furniture we used to adorn them: remnants of a lived-in predicament. However, what the book is more interested in capturing is what happens after the abandonment. What becomes of these spaces years after there is no one to maintain, to prune, to preserve, and to constantly tend? French photographer Romain Veillon seems to be having his answer in nature, imagined as an all overcoming force, but with the gentleness of a caressing embrace, as opposed to the ferocity of an all consuming flood. The end is a new beginning here.
The eeriness of the empty spaces Veillon captures, from France to Japan, and from Russia to Italy, across the world, is delicately balanced by a deliberate calming effect that nature has; greens succinctly take over moulded walls, peeled wallpaper, cracked concrete, and shattered shards of glass in the form of curling vines and overgrown weeds. In Veillon’s pictures and the spaces they frame, time seems to have stood still, yet having corroded everything it passed through. Interestingly though, Green Urbex seems more interested in presenting this new natural order, in the truest sense of the term, as a process rather than a finality. Terming the event of the human population’s complete disappearance as a consequence of a great “planetary demolition party”, Veillon’s visual narrative in Green Urbex is divided into three succinct stages bearing temporal stamps: 'The Abandonment', 'The Rotting', and ‘The Return of Nature’.
Interestingly, Green Urbex also rationalises, or theorises this photographic intervention, by stating instances of an overall increase in allure with world ending events and narratives, of an “imminent apocalypse” taking over discussions ranging from biblical to pop cultural. What’s more interesting is that according to the writers, the sentiment, or the omniscience of it, seems to have gained a favour among the general public as well. The textual narrative in the book then, prefaced and presented by Sylvain Tesson along with Veillon himself, does not mince words, squarely resting the responsibility of such a world ending event on the human population’s abuse of nature and its resources. Though not specifying the conditions of the apocalyptic event, Veillon weaves a visual montage nonetheless, of what is set afoot once "the cosmos rids itself of its noisiest occupant". The book in that case becomes more than a visual publication. It very well could be a memoir of our time here, and a manifesto for whoever’s next. Quoting from the book’s preface itself, “Green Urbex recalls the need for a harmonious life with our habitat, which will not be able to resist for long the ecological pressure that man puts it under".
As a photographical diary of Veillon’s travels across the world, Green Urbex documents a diverse travelogue, from Bali to Japan, from England to Italy, from Croatia to Guyana via Belgium and France, searching for places that fit his bill. Staged in abandoned hotels, villas, factories, theatres, schools, and chapels, Veillon’s story presents itself with a hint of wry romanticism; his fancy for such spaces arising from the same feeling people draw from looking at historic caves, feeling one on an anthropocentric scale with their distant ancestors, reflecting “our own finitude and the fragility of our civilisations”. The book attempts to show how nature would come to reappropriate gradually abandoned places, serving as a rather stark reminder of the place of man on this planet. In his words, the spaces, although abandoned years ago, have a lingering sense of presence prevailing through them, almost as if holographs arise in a science-fiction film to narrate a history. Though framed in a singular photograph, each fold of the bedspread, each mark on the wall, each broken tile, and even the heaviness in the air itself, houses an infinitum of stories.
With our curiosity piqued, STIR engages in an exclusive stimulating conversation with Romain Veillon, about his photography, his subjects, and the objects within them.
Anmol Ahuja (AA): What is the first emotion you experience when you encounter such an abandoned space?
Romain Veillon (RV): Many emotions will go through your mind while you explore an abandoned building. But I guess the first feeling is curiosity about what I am going to find there. In which state is the building going to be? What objects are still there? What testimonies of previous lives am I going to find? Then, when I finish exploring the place and start photographing it, I feel peaceful and focus about what I want to shoot and what result I want. In the end, when you are done exploring, I think the main emotion that remains for a long time after the shooting is melancholia. When you remember the objects, papers, and belongings you found, and what it tells you about the life that used to fill the place. It’s always mixed feelings to try to imagine how a home must have been before it was abandoned.
AA: What is the most significant challenge in shooting the space once you have found it?
RV: In my opinion, the most difficult thing is to understand and transcribe the atmosphere you can feel in a place into your photography. It is very important for me that my photographs are a perfect example of what I felt during my discovery of the castle, house, factory, church or whatever building I am in. Finding the best pictures, which room is the most powerful, or which memory is the more meaningful: to illustrate this feeling is also a part of the equation. You will also face technical difficulties like a bad light, but since I only shoot in natural light, there isn’t much I can do about that. Too much wind or difficult angles too; but it’s less important to me since usually, time (if you have plenty of it of course) will bring you the answer. Dangerous rotten floors can also be very challenging!
AA: Can you sum up the one thing that you look for in the space to capture, that makes the picture perfect?
RV: It is going to be a little repetitive as I just spoke about the light, but yes it’s still light! That is really what I am looking for when I arrive somewhere. If I am not happy with it, I will come back and try to work with a different kind of light. Except if I am abroad where it’s harder to go back to places. If you are lucky with the golden hour, with a ray of light or at the opposite with a very dark mood, your picture can change completely and be exactly what will make your picture unforgettable. And sometimes the perfect photograph you had in mind will never exist because of that.
AA: What attracted you to capture abandoned places in the first place?
RV: I have been fascinated by them since childhood. I would imagine that, since many people discovering the decaying house at the end of the street is a memory we all have deep inside of us. When I encounter such a place, my goal is that everybody can travel in the past with me and make up the stories they decide they want to: Why was this place abandoned? What happened to the former owners? What used to happen in this room? People make their own kind of answer. It makes them go in their imaginary and become the hero of their own adventure where they are the detective. Each story will be different from the other, and that’s what I love. 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.
AA: The subjects you have chosen to photograph through Green Urbex: those of abandonment and even extinction, are somewhat bleak subjects. Do you think it takes a kind of romanticisation to approach them with the objective of capturing a certain beauty in them?
RV: When you see a wonderful abandoned villa in Italy full of faded paintings, you are divided between the sadness of witnessing a place like that getting derelict and the astonishment of being able to wander in such a wonder. I don’t really think we have to choose between beauty and truth. We meet in the middle of the road. I don’t stage places, but I try to capture them at the perfect moment when they are the most likeable they could be. My book is also a kind of romanticism if you wish: we can see what the world could look like if humans disappeared from 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.
You can see more of Romain's work here.