The Art of Abandonment

Destroyed, decayed and derelict – all key elements that Jonk, a well-seasoned French photographer, seeks in his ultimate subject matter, for his ongoing series depicting abandoned structures.

Do you come from a photography background?

I did not study photography and learned everything myself, mostly from reading and exchanging ideas with fellow photographers. My background is more scientific as I am an engineer, but I’m now working on financial markets.

What is it that originally attracted you to photographing abandoned places?

It started with my attraction to graffiti. Lost places are often used by graffiti artists to express their art; in these kinds of places they can paint without disruption and take their time to make bigger and finer pieces than they would anywhere in public spaces. That’s what I was first looking for – places with graffiti artwork, not just childish tagging, that I could photograph. With time, I learned to love the places themselves and the atmosphere and aura that surrounded them. So now what attracts me to the location is the poetry I find there, the stories I can imagine about their history, the quiet and often strong atmospheres.

Buzludzha, the abandoned congress centre of the Bulgarian communist party

Some of the places you have visited are pretty remote; do you need special clearance or equipment to shoot in places such as Chernobyl?

Chernobyl is a very special case; it’s a militarised exclusion zone, and you need to have an official clearance to visit. All the other places are private properties where access is forbidden. So what I do most of the time is basically trespassing. This implies that you take the risk of getting caught – by security, keepers, even police sometimes, which happens regularly.

When you visit a house where people left everything behind, you really feel like you are intruding in their lives.

Does it ever affect you emotionally, experiencing derelict places that have quite grim history?

Absolutely, quite often actually. When you visit a house where people left everything behind, you really feel like you are intruding in their lives. Another example would be factories, open one day and closed the next. Once I saw a half-full bottle of Fanta with the glass next to it; it really felt like time and normal activity had stopped in place; it is a quite strange feeling.

A castle in Montenegro, where nature has begun to take over again

Where has this passion for these structures brought you in the past few years?

Well, I have visited something like 600 locations in more than 20 countries in Europe. I also explored some abandoned locations while traveling in Cuba and Senegal.

What is one of the standout locations for you?

Due to the high number I have explored, it’s very hard to tell which one would be my favourite. I want my pictures to tell the impact of time, so recently abandoned places don’t interest me, I often don’t even get the camera out, so I don’t visit this kind any more. What I want is decay, rust, cracking wood, broken windows, nature taking over… anything that make the viewer see the place is long abandoned. Everything that fits this description could be my favorite. If I had to choose one, it might be Buzludzha, the congress centre of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It’s unique in many ways. The location is extremely remote, perched on top of a mountain. Time clearly stopped there and you can still find many traces of the Soviet Union.

A castle in France, covered in mold, with a completely deteriorating structure

What was the most dangerous adventure?

But the worst thing that happened to me was getting bitten by a dog. Also, one time I was locked in a property by an owner who went off to call the cops.

Just last weekend, I had to climb eight metres, with no equipment, to access a cooling tower from the inside. But the worst thing that happened to me was getting bitten by a dog. Also, one time I was locked in a property by an owner who went off to call the cops. I almost got a kicking by another owner, who took me by the collar and pressed me against the wall with a fist ready to punch my face. I like to think I have diplomatic talents, but he still broke my tripod! Another guy threatened to get his rifle out if I stayed one more minute on his property… I have many stories like that; they’re more stories than dangerous adventures. Let’s touch wood that’s as bad as it gets.

A successful and safe trip is not as easy as following your heart, and requires quite some planning beforehand. Of course the best part is visiting the place and shooting it, but still, the preparation can be amusing also – looking for places on the internet, checking for possible access on Google maps, etc.

A music classroom in Pripyat, in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Where to next with your work?

I will definitely continue on the abandonment theme for a long time, but I do many other things. My historical focus has always been travels; I started following the graffiti theme about 15 years ago. Abandoned places are more recent, but take me to more and more places. Recently, I found myself a new interest – shooting airports. I frequent them a lot, and I learned to find beauty in their very reflective floors and huge shadows coming from the often all-glass structures. You can see an album of these pictures on my website or Facebook page.

So, as you see, I am not centered on one subject; I am a photographer, I like to take pictures of subjects that interest me, and these subjects are numerous.

A house in France
A hospital in the Chernobyl Exclusion zone

View more of Jonk’s work on his facebook page,