Dutch photographer Bob Thissen finds beauty in crumbling structures around the world
He recently photographed derelict love hotels in Japan
In one photo, a dusty chandelier hangs from the ceiling above a large circular mattress framed by a mirrored headboard. In another, an abandoned suit of armor stands guard over a chariot bed adorned with stained pillows.
Signs of decay, from the scattered debris of a collapsing roof to water stained walls, are everywhere.
Yet the images – all taken in the rooms of an abandoned Japanese sex hotel by Dutch photographer Bob Thissen – seem oddly serene, like staged monuments to love.
Thissen is no stranger to derelict beauty, having traveled to almost 60 countries since 2007 in search of abandoned buildings.
A professional urban explorer, he is part of a growing group of young photographers who travel the globe, cameras in hand, exploring abandoned ruins and unseen parts of the man-made environment.
“It’s nice to see nature taking over earth,” says Thissen, “when humanity comes to an end, nature will rule again.”
CNN spoke to Thissen about his photography travels and the allure of Japan’s crumbling sex hotels.
You’ve visited thousands of abandoned buildings in different countries in the past ten years. What inspired your first journey?
The first trigger was a dream of becoming a modern Indiana Jones going on an adventure. It’s like going to a museum without any rules. First I took pictures just to show my friends and family where I’ve been.
Now it’s part of my job to go around the world, explore abandoned buildings, and bring them back to life using stop-motion technique, splicing each frame together to give the appearance of movement.
Why do you choose ruins instead of well established buildings?
What really attracts me is the texture and style of old buildings. They look way nicer with decayed walls and moss and cracks. In my opinion, crumbling things look much more interesting than straight white walls without any texture. They look haunted and magical.
How do you locate the buildings you photograph?
I try to go farther than other people, to countries nobody else explores. I spend a lot of time researching on the internet to find places. It’s a really long process and sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not.
Those buildings have been demolished for different reasons – can you share a few interesting background stories about them?
Every building has an interesting story. One time I was in the palace of the now-deceased Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa in Africa. It felt weird to be walking around his castle because he was accused of tyranny and cannibalism when he was alive.
Have you ever come across other photographers or locals inside abandoned sites you have photographed?
I try my best to avoid them and I rarely meet people because I only go to places that nobody else goes. But urban-exploring is really popular in Western Europe. When I go exploring during the weekend, there are so many people that it ruins the atmosphere of abandoned buildings.
You’ve recently been to Japan. How do their abandoned buildings compare to those in other countries?
As I travel a lot, I have noticed that when a place gets abandoned in Western Europe, everything gets stolen, looted, vandalized within a few weeks, maybe days. But when you go to Asia, they’ve got a little more respect for everything.
I was in an abandoned theme park in Japan, and everything was still in the exact same position as it was left, the kind of perfect decay that was really strange to find. I talked to the owner of the theme park and he said it had to face a natural death, just let it go and let it slowly die instead of taking everything out.
While you were there you photographed an abandoned “love hotel” called the Fuurin Motel. Why did you go there?
I did a lot of research on the internet. Japanese people don’t really talk about it, but it’s a pretty popular place in Japan. On the one hand it was a cool experience but on the other hand it was really awkward. I was afraid to touch anything inside.
Love hotels flourished when people didn’t have any privacy for secret relationships. I wondered what happened there. I also read that people there believe that there are ghosts or spirits staying around abandoned buildings.
You’ve visited other kinds of hotels in Japan. What were they each like?
It was fun to see different styles of hotels. I think Japanese people really love themes, because everything, even amusement parks, had different themes. I’ve also been to a ryokan but I don’t know much history about it as it was a road-find. It was fun to see different styles of hotels.
Are ruins glamorized or exploited with this kind of photography?
It’s quite a statement to show people what’s abandoned, because in my opinion, old abandoned buildings look way better than the modern ones. For me, urban decay is not something negative. It’s more of a term for the beauty of decaying buildings.
People can look at buildings in a different way. In the past, people built buildings to last forever but nowadays you build one and it’s gone in ten to twenty years, which is a shame.