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ONCE UPON A TIME

A road trip through the old industrial heart of Western Europe

 

The border regions of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have long been the engine of our prosperity. In the mid-nineteenth century, Wallonia was even the third largest industrial and economic power in the world, after the United States and Great Britain. Iron ore and coal were mined from Mons to Liège and machines, ships, locomotives and railway tracks were produced on a large scale. A century later, the economic boom had passed its peak, and decline set in. Ultimately, the factories and mines closed permanently in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

After my graduation at the university I came to live in Maastricht, on the edge of this rust belt. I had little historical awareness of the economic prosperity and decline of the regions next door. And in Limburg most traces of the industrial past had already been erased. The mining sites that had become economically worthless had been given a different purpose and replacement work had been created for as many ex-miners as possible.

 

It is only when I start photographing the areas around Liège, Charleroi, Genk and Mons in 2015 that I become fascinated by the grandeur of the past, of which the abandoned industrial complexes are a silent witness. Driving through these raw, unpolished urban landscapes, I regularly hit the brakes because I have seen something in the corner of my eye that seems so unusual to me that I have to take a picture of it.

 

My voyage of discovery also takes me to the Ruhr area, where most of the factories, shafts and mine mountains have disappeared from the landscape, just like in the Netherlands, to make way for new industry and office and shopping complexes. The buildings and mine shafts that have been preserved have been promoted to industrial heritage and have been given a new purpose as a museum, experience park or cultural center.

 

In this series, the emphasis is on the areas in Belgium where heavy industry once brought prosperity. As in the rust belts in the north of England and in the US, the vast majority of the population here benefits the least from globalization. The financial injections from the European Union will still provide a handful of new buildings and repaved roads, but the work will not return. In fact, the companies that had to provide replacement jobs at the end of the twentieth century have either gone bankrupt themselves or have relocated their factories to countries where labor costs next to nothing.

 

Wandering with my camera, I like to start a conversation with passers-by. The residents are curious about my motives for photographing in their street or neighborhood, and sometimes a bit suspicious. When I ask what it is like to live here, the elderly people always feel homesick for the days when there was still work. The poverty was tolerable thanks to the wealth of mutual support and solidarity. If there is one thing they lack, it is community spirit. They see the young people leaving the neighborhood, sinking into a jobless life, or getting lost in the illegal circuit. And there is always that anger about politicians who, in their eyes, do nothing for the common people. Many people in this region no longer have faith in the administrators, the democratic institutions, and the daily news in the media. They feel that their lives have been dramatically changed by something they have no control over at all. They live surrounded by relics from a surreal, post-industrial world and try to make the most of it.

 

Photographs from this series were published in Dodho Magazine (august 2016) and exposed at Centre Ceramique Maastricht (10 sept – 15 oktober 2017) and in the Dutch Photomuseum Rotterdam (10 - 13 may 2018).