Beyond spaces, it’s a SNAP

For photographer Daan Oude Elferink, abandoned, forbidden places offer the perfect space to feel free and unfettered to explore innumerable possibilities here, writes Akhil Kadidal

A carpet of leaves

Photography, as a saying goes, offers a visceral kick when the subject matter is dangerous, lively or in your face, but for Dutch photographer Daan Oude Elferink, who has been shooting abandoned and decaying places since 2008, the work is no less visceral or dangerous.

Elferink, who goes by a portmanteau, Daanoe (by combining the extended letters of his name) has braved speeding trains, members of organised crime, terrorists, angry police, watchdogs, collapsing floors, plus the occasional sewer in the pursuit of his art, which has earned plaudits in Europe, the Americas and Asia.

In stark contrast to many photographers who seek out human subjects as the medium of their work, Elferink spends his days scouring Google Earth for abandoned, forgotten places. Once he has enough pins on a location, he loads up his car with his camera gear, ladders and ropes and heads out.

On the edge

“The more neglected or forgotten the place is, the harder I try to get in to that building,” he said and showed images of his “office” — of him hanging off the side of buildings trying to find a way in, trying to climb through windows and walking through mould encrusted hallways and rooms within buildings abandoned years, if not decades earlier.

But it was not always like. Elferink, who is now in his early 40s, was working a regular day job as a software developer until one day in 2008, when he stumbled upon a decaying fortress in Belgium. “I fell in love with architecture in a state of decay and the strength of nature in reclaiming these erstwhile human habitations. I realised that nobody sees these places,” he explained.

Ancient Green
Ancient Green

Unravelling 

More than that is the skein of a story which these abandoned places appear to tell. “In bedrooms I would find beds which looked like somebody had just woken up and walked out, leaving everything behind. Every detritus of a person’s life is sometimes there from the clothes, to books, to photographs to unmade beds — frozen in time,” he said.

In 2016, while photographing an abandoned castle in Germany, Elferink came across an ornately decorated bedroom in which only pillow lay haphazardly on a double bed. He found himself asking why this was so; was only one person living there? Did they die and was the place abandoned afterwards? Imaginative speculation aside, however, Elferink made it clear that he does not seek the answers. 

Forces of Nature
Forces of Nature

“I am a very emotional person. I want my imagination to be ignited. Sometimes, I don’t even take pictures. I just sit inside one of these buildings and try to take it all in. It all starts the moment I step into a building and I smell the mould. If I knew the history of the place, it would kill the magic,” he said.

The risks that Elferink runs in the pursuit of what he calls his “hobby” are extraordinary. He has been arrested for trespass more times than he cares to remember and on one occasion, he and a friend made their way into an abandoned house in Belgium with the intention of photographing the interiors, when they were tackled by police.

As Elferink and his friend, dressed in black (“looking like quintessential burglars,” Elferink laughingly said), were marched out in handcuffs, the entire street turned out to watch them take the “perp walk” to the waiting police cars. 

“I think, in retrospect, the entire street probably called the police about two suspicious characters breaking into the house. The police thought we wanted to steal items from the house and sell them online. However, when I showed the arresting officer my photographs, he was just blown away. After that, I began to take even more risks,” Elferink said.

This led to him nearly being killed in 2011, when he had the bright idea of photographing an abandoned section of a pre-metro tunnel in Belgium. Looking at the train schedule, he determined that he had a five-minute window of opportunity before the trains rumbled through the tunnel. He was badly mistaken. 

“Trains began racing through the tunnels every minute. I and my friends, who normally accompany me on these jaunts, had to scurry from station to station in this one-minute gap. It was dangerous. Then, worse of all, we were in the news that evening, saying that if we were ever caught, we would be treated as terrorists,” Elferink said.

Five years later, Elferink had another brush with terrorism when he forestalled plans to photograph an abandoned house near the Audi factory outside the city, because it was getting late. It would prove a fortuitous decision as the building was being used as a hideout by several men who had claimed allegiance to the Islamic state terrorist organisation.

“I decided to come back in a week, but when I went there, the place was crawling with police. Had I not postponed my plan, I probably would not be here today,” Elferink said.

Daan Oude Elferink (PHOTO BY AUTHOR)
Daan Oude Elferink (PHOTO BY AUTHOR)

A supernatural experience

Then, there is the matter of the inexplicable, quasi-supernatural things that sometimes happen in abandoned buildings, although Elferink was quick to point out that he does not believe in ghosts. “At an abandoned hotel in Germany, none of our cameras would work, but soon after we left the building, they began working. I have been in buildings where you feel a prickly sensation of not being welcome,” he said.

While Elferink has shot outside Europe, having undertaken projects in Indonesia, Hong Kong and the US, he has no immediate plans to film in India. “It is difficult to find, hidden and forgotten places in India,” he said.

For budding photographers, he offers this critical bit of advice: throw out the rule book and follow your heart. “I think that is one reason why I am able to rapidly establish my own style because I don’t want to follow somebody else’s rules,” he said.

“And it has panned out, which is not bad, considering that here you have a guy who had never even taken a single vacation photograph in his whole life,” he added.

 

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