Photographing the Terrible Loneliness at the Centre of European Countries
Gert Verbelen pinpointed the centre of 18 European countries and spent a week documenting each of them.
For his latest book, The Inner Circle of Europe, Gert Verbelen travelled to and spent a week photographing the geographical centre of 18 eurozone countries. His goal was to piece together an abstract representation of the eurozone as a collective entity. He found that with migration of younger generations to bigger cities, and a lack of development in smaller villages around Europe, the lives of these people are often a lot lonelier than we think.
I met up with him to ask a few questions about this latest work.
VICE: What inspired you to do this trip and why did you choose the centre of these countries?
Gert Verbelen: I live in a small village near Brussels – which is in some way the centre of Europe. The idea of visiting all the eurozone countries came about when the 18th country (Latvia) was added in 2014. I didn't want to target the capitals, the big cities or the photogenic areas.
Instead, I wanted to visit a single place in the heart of each country, stay there, explore and take pictures for exactly one week. By limiting my stay to one week rather than traversing an entire country, I was able to have a far more intense involvement with each local community.
How did you calculate the countries' centres and the perimeters in which you could work?
My brother, who's a mathematician, showed me how to geographically pinpoint the centre. This rather limiting rigid structure provided me with borders and formed some sort of geographical cage in which I could work with the greatest freedom. Ironically, I almost always ended up in semi-abandoned places where younger people had left for bigger cities in search of work – leaving behind empty streets and faded glory.
And the language barriers?
My limited French and German helped out here and there but sign language was the most efficient way of communication. I "talked" for hours with a shepherd on a Spanish mountain. I was invited into an Estonian home without verbal communication. In Cyprus, I ate lunch at a place where "lovely, lovely" was the only English spoken. When I was bitten by a dog in Latvia, the villagers asked a student who'd recently returned from an Erasmus exchange to be my interpreter at the doctor's and later in the hospital.
There must have been quite a bit of suspicion and interest around you - a new guy walking about with a camera round his neck. I don't suppose many of these places have a lot of visitors?
Small villages don't really like strangers. Gossip spreads like wildfire and I did raise quite a bit of suspicion. When I was in Slovenia, there were cop cars following me. When you find yourself in a non-touristy area – where there's seemingly nothing worthwhile to take pictures of – people immediately presume that you have criminal intentions.
Which of the countries was the most welcoming, and did that reflect their economic position within Europe?
I have to say that the south felt warmer, both in terms of climate and the people. Although that comparison didn't hold up everywhere. But it's the individuals that you coincidentally meet who determine this welcoming feeling, rather than the economic situation of that particular country at the time. The least welcoming situation was by far the Latvian dog that bit me, when he broke loose from his chain. The young guy that took me to the hospital made up for it, though.
Greece's economic crisis and the mass influx of refugees have been the news stories dominating 2015. Did you notice either of these things while you were working on this project?
I saw a lot of deterioration and sensed a lot of hopelessness, especially among younger people. Few prospects for better times or more jobs; the ever-rising cost of living and no chance of a better life. A lot of people I met were thinking of migrating to other European countries where economic prospects were better.
When I was in Greece, I sensed a lot of hostility towards Germany and their leaders. Europe seemed to be failing for the inhabitants of these smaller villages. Being part of the eurozone came across as a threat to their local economy. People were afraid to lose their identity and traditions in the end. Overall, what really struck me about my voyage through these charming villages was how the rural exodus towards big cities, the ageing population and the lack of local employment resulted in this massive loneliness.
See more of Gert's work here.
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