"My photos depict a parallel world, a world that’s hidden within our world. Most of the time we’re not aware of their existence, yet these abandoned places are embedded into our everyday lives. And it’s this everyday life –with all its chaos and worries– that I want to run away from. Escapism is at the basis of my explorations, and it’s the solitude I want to capture and share through my photographs."
Reginald Van de Velde, aka Suspiciousminds, is the scouter of the unknown and the unseen. This Belgian photographer explores abandoned places around the world, no matter how difficult is to reach them, to make the most amazing frames of it. "The result of an intangible desire to explore what mankind has left behind", hospitals, monasteries, prisons, stations, impressive structures, that are now part of the past, become glorious monuments in his shots. And we had the chance to speak with him about his astonishing work with them.
Why do you use the name SUSPICIOUSMINDS?
This goes back to the nineties when I registered my domain name. Back then my website featured graphic design work of me and a good friend. I was searching for a name that was original, in combination with the word minds. From the longlist of all possibilities it was eventually the Elvis song that did the trick.
Years later, when I made the website 100% photography based, the name suspiciousminds still fitted perfectly. When we’re exploring abandoned buildings and derelict places, outsiders see us as intruders and suspicious characters.
Why do you photograph these places? Something about time or humanity? What do you want to tell the people with the impressive images of these abandoned spaces?
The town where I grew up had lots of abandonments: castles, villas, some factories... From a very young age my friends and I would venture into those forbidden structures and make them ours, turning them into our playgrounds. I reflect those juvenile times a lot. We were without a care in the world, already exploring beyond the boundaries of any rules that could be implied on us. Escapism is at the basis of my today’s explorations, and it’s the solitude I want to capture and show through my photographs.
How did you start doing this kind of work? You’ve had a lot of success with your style since then, how do you feel about it?
Started way back when I was 14 years old. My dad gave me a Pentax camera, and I already experimented a lot with black & white film. I’ve been documenting abandoned places since my childhood - on an irregular basis. Things really took off when I bought my first DSLR, in 2007. The same year someone pointed out that this thing I do has a name: Urban Exploration.
I’m really glad people dig my work and my photos. I put a lot of time and effort in it, from the initial research, to the travels, the processing, and the occasional write-up. And it was a great honour when Luster - an Antwerp based publisher of fine photography books - contacted me to discuss the launch of my very first big photography book. “Between Nowhere & Never” was born, the apotheosis of all my travels and explorations. The book was launched in November 2015, and is available worldwide.
Which is the most amazing place you’ve photographed? Why did it shock you that much?
My all time favourite is an abandoned prison in France. We pioneered it back in 2012 and up till now this was my toughest explore ever. We had the location on our watchlist for a long time, but weren’t 100% sure if the prison was abandoned yet. The newspapers mentioned the relocation of all inmates, and that was that. Not a single picture was online. There was no formal statement that said “the prison is closed”.
So… you start planning it. Thoroughly. And properly. A massive prison. Impossible to escape from. And impossible to penetrate. We did a scout of a couple of hours to check watchtowers, fences, walls, camera’s, guards… Trying to find a weak spot of the system.
The explore was legendary. We had a big ass van to support our array of ladders and our headstrong team was determined to nail that Holy Grail. We pre-dawned the location and it took us 3 hours to get inside. Working multiple fences and walls, working with ladders, straps and ropes, while having no idea if some sort of security was still residing inside.
Our hardship was rewarded: seeing the grand hall with the cellblocks of the inmates for the first time in history was magic. Just pure magic. This is my best explore ever!
I suppose most of the places are not very easy to reach, which was the most challenging place? And have you ever had problems with guards or similar stories?
Most challenging place: the Buzludzha monument in Bulgaria, during winter time. It’s a deserted communist relic on top of a mountain range.
My first visit was in February 2013, during extremely harsh winter conditions. I rented a 4x4 car at the airport of Sofia, and adventure started right there. Instead of having a car rental at the airport, we opted for a non kosher cheap-as-fuck rental from an independent company. Not sure if you could call it a company, I think it was just a person who rented out his car. I had to pick it up at a dodgy spot outside the terminal, at 23 o’clock at night, with hush-hush arrangements. They gave me an old eighties 4x4 jeep that was pretty much slated for demolition. Great! With no satnav I travelled Bulgaria, just relying on a couple of printouts from Google Maps. Worked like a charm.
Doing the Buzludzha monument in winter time requires proper preparation: we drove the 4x4 in the deep snow as far as we could, and dropped it somewhere “near” the area of the monument. Winter was in full swing, and the temperature was -15°C. The snow and the wind turned this place into a white hell. We put on our snow racket shoes and hiked another 45 minutes through the deep snow, with barely any direction. At last we finally stumbled upon the monument, it was only visible within 10 meters distance.
And there you are. Full of joy and excitement. Seeing this enormous building for the first time up close. Touching it. Feeling it. You’re completely in awe! Speechless. And you think the hard work is all done, and you’ll be able to capture it with your camera. Boy, was I wrong. We still had to face the biggest challenge: getting up. The big hall is at level two of the building. There are two flights of staircases, and both of them were transformed into frozen waterfalls. It had been raining a lot in the previous months, and all that water turned into a solid massive block of ice. We couldn’t get up. It was just impossible to go up the stairs. What followed was a dangerous climb upwards, laying flat on our belly, and pulling us up by using debris and rocks sticking out of the ice. While holding our backpacks and tripods. Quite the endeavor. My buddy slipped and fell, bruising the complete left side of his body. The things we do to get a pic…
And in reply to the second part of your question, yes, I’ve had my fair share of police encounters. It’s inevitable, if you explore on a very regular basis.
What gear (talking about camera and post processing) do you usually use in these pieces?
I work with a Nikon D800 and just one lens: the Nikkor 14-24mm wideangle. And a tripod of course. Once home I rely on Bridge to organise all my shots in sets and Photoshop to process them. No extra plug-ins, no extra software, just the essential tools.
Which are your upcoming challenges?
That’s for me to know, and for you to find out ;-)