The ‘Doel’ Series
A reason, if not the reason, I picked up photography again, was to use it as a valid excuse to come places I am not expected or welcome. Backstage, on rooftops, breaking into deserted buildings: If you’re a photographer, at least you’re obviously not a thief or vandal. “Because I can” just doesn’t cut it as a credible reason. Go figure.
So it was only before a matter of time before the ghost town of Doel was paid a visit. I’ve been playing with this idea for years and the suggestion came up among a couple friends to go shoot together. I saw the perfect opportunity and that same week, the four of us sat crammed together in a Mitsubishi like these in an A cup on our way to the border. Because where else would you find abominations like Doel, but in the furthest corners of this tiny place?
– Doel in the past
Trivia: Doel used to be your everyday little hick town, with only two things special about it. A nuclear power plant was built in its backyard in the seventies, and together with that plant, it is cut off from the world by the Schelde on one side, and Antwerp’s industrial zone on the other. Long before its residents even thought of moving out, this place was forgotten by God and left to go mad.
When you see Doel today, it is hard not to imagine that at some point, everyone did indeed go mad. It’s strange because they wouldn’t have any particular reason (beyond the obvious): In the early sixties, the first plans arose to wipe Doel from the maps and use the space for industrial growth. They were quickly trashed again, but resurfaced in 1995. A series of protests, juridical screw-ups and poor communication lead to uncertainty around the fate of the village. Its residents were divided between those who wanted Doel to stay, and those who wanted a clear policy on how the village was to be abandoned.
The government eventually found loopholes to continue the build of the new container dock, and started a program in 1999 to buy the entire town, and put it up for rent so the locals (or outsiders) could stay and maintain a worthwhile living standard, while it became possible for the contracts to be ended and the town left empty.
Things didn’t go so well, in reality. The atmosphere had soured and those who took the money, were labeled traitors. Squatters took the place of those who left and the town turned lawless until in 2006, a zero tolerance was enforced. The squatters too, were driven out and left the empty husk of a short, but turbulent past behind.
So this is what remains: From the first moment of turning into this desolate place, it becomes apparent that there are three major chapters that formed it. The long process that turned it into a village, the few years it took for it all to go to hell, and the ongoing period where the only souls there are photographers and graffiti artists. The protests that escalated into hatred and the promises never kept, leave their echo as though an apocalypse took place.
My first worry was that there would be nothing left but ruins. Especially the area around the church was pecked dry. Windows smashed, furniture in pieces. But if you took the risk of going upstairs, you would sometimes find things left behind by the original residents. Amazing, if you think about it, that after all these years, evidence of a peaceful town can still be found.
At times, it was truly heartbreaking. Old books, children’s toys, letters, bank account logs. Things that, in normal circumstances, wouldn’t have been left behind. I can understand if you’re angry, but leaving your bedroom behind untouched? Some things were too strange to fit into the big picture.
And then there was the power plant, completing the picture of something along the lines of a nuclear holocaust. One might wonder if he shouldn’t be wearing a gas mask, with all the warning signs, both official and artistic. There was always this atmosphere of invisible danger, that made me walk very carefully where ever I went.
Not that I needed actual danger to do so- I could never shake the feeling that I was still breaking into someone’s home. That these broken valuables still belong to someone who might come back any moment to find his former life utterly destroyed.
I’m being dramatic, I know. It’s the effect this town has on people. And here’s what I couldn’t believe- People still live there. Original residents that stuck, through it all. There’s a hardware store and a bar still open, and the church bell rings every half hour. Looking around, it’s just inconceivable how people can survive there, in that godforsaken hellhole in the midst of Belgium’s worst landscape. The nearest shop seems two days away and there’s just nothing left to live for. And, in all honesty, it was a shitty place to begin with.
The four of us all carried identical camera bodies (Canon 500D, although mine is labeled ‘Rebel T1i’) so if we one day manage to put our pictures together, it will be easier to compare shooting styles and lens characteristics. Personally, I must say I seriously took the effort to make my shorts technically sound, using a few new methods:
-Av mode, which controls the aperture.
-Exposure compensation for shadows or highlights, so that I could recover their detail in post-processing.
-Using the camera’s histogram to review my shots, so I could determine if no details were lost outside the camera’s dynamic range.
-Adjusting the tonecurve to bring contrast in the areas that needed it the most.
If this is all incomprehensible to you, don’t fret: Up until recently it was for me, too. These are advanced techniques and I’m still not anywhere near mastering them. I am still too concentrated on my subject rather than my camera, forgetting to adjust ISO values or using entirely the wrong aperture. Regardless, I took the few tips of my friend’s photography teacher to heart and it seems that, even in that single evening, I learned heaps. Using the histogram in particular helped me solve problems I had been struggling with from the start.
It seems I needed this to restore my self confidence as a photographer. Lately I’ve been occupied with other things and if I made any progress at all the last few months, it didn’t show. The respect for photography itself rather than using it as a means to accomplish a good picture, was something I needed to be told. It put me in my place and I think it helped me open up to new techniques. All this from 30 minutes with a photography teacher.
It was safe to say we weren’t the only ones there. In the afternoon, the crowd that showed up reminded me of my festival jobs last summer. Cameras far more expensive than ours, tripods,… the works. Usually my response is to climb or trespass where others won’t go, but that wasn’t really an option this time around. I’m happy that instead, I would later be able to show my pictures and explain why I used the settings that I did. I may have been far from the best photographer there, but at least I can pass for one.