"You see an old plane, or an old merry-go-round overtaken by trees, and it provokes a story. It's the immaterial value that I still love."
Dietmar Eckell has been snapping photos of plane wrecks for years. He began as a hobbyist who framed landscapes with ruins like disused train tracks, cars, and buildings. Then came a point in his life where he began working less at his job and more at photography, which culminated in him crashing a paraglider while taking aerial shots. He only broke a leg, but it gave him a lightbulb moment: What happens to crashed planes? Not the ones that kill people, but the ones ending in stories of wilderness survival.
He did some research and found that there are dozens of remote crash sites around the world. So in 2010, he quit his job and set out to photograph zero-fatality plane wrecks for his series Happy End. He's just returned from a week in the Australian bush, so I caught up with him to talk about what he'd found and what it all means.
VICE: What were you photographing in Australia?
Dietmar Eckell: It's a very old C-53. Some guy overshot Broome at night in 1942. Everything was dark in the cities in those days because of the Japanese bombing, so the pilot missed the airport and ran out of gas. It was all flat so he was able to bring the plane down and they were rescued, so it's a beautiful story. It's so remote that the plane is still there sitting in the bush. It's in pretty good shape after 72 years and only one engine is missing. It took seven days to get out there, sleeping on the roof of the 4WD. I actually wanted to sleep in the plane but the local Aboriginals wouldn't let me.
It sounds exciting. How do you find these things?
I go to internet forums like Pacific Wrecks and various pilot forums. All the old pilots love to tell stories so there's heaps of information there. And then there's data bases from the US military about crashes. You just look for the ones with zero fatalities for a starting point, and then I go to the airfields and talk to the pilots. There's always one who says call this guy, and then the guy is all like yeah, I saw that from above, and they help because it's fun. Or sometimes people don't believe me and say you come here from Germany to tell me there's a plane out there, I don't believe you! But that time I had the GPS info and we flew for hours to find a plane resting on the edge of a lake. The guy couldn't believe it.
What's the plane that sticks out most in your head?
I think it's the one in the Alaskan woods. It's totally colorful because it was fall and it's just fascinating what they guys were dealing with in the 1950s. The military were flying these planes called C-82 Packets and they didn't really work, so they sold the fleet to some transport company. These planes were then flying around Canada and Alaska but they were flying caskets. You could count the years until they came down. So one night the plane's whole electric system failed and the guys somehow brought it down in the forest. It was a freezing January, north of the Arctic Circle, and they figured their only chance they was to make a big fire. So they survived for three days with a fire and another plane noticed the glow on the horizon and they were rescued. The fun part is that this pilot contacted me and thanked me for writing down his story. So I sent him the book and he was thrilled. He said his kids were sick of hearing about it and now he had some proof.
Would you ever take photos of non-happy-ending plane crashes?
No. I'm never going to take a photo of a casket.
Do you feel your work given you any special perspective on planes that go down?
Well, it's a bit sad that I sell more books when there's a plane crash. People are googling crashes and they find me. Even a Chinese magazine contacted me when MH370 became lost and there was still hope. It's something I'm not really happy about.
What about ruins. Why do you find them so interesting?
There's a word, restwert. In German it means residual value, so it has no more functional use but there's still something there. It's the aesthetics or the story or the associations. You see an old plane, or an old merry-go-round overtaken by trees, and it provokes a story. It's the immaterial value that I still love. And you know that in maybe 200 years these things will look as they did a million years ago. It just gives you a perspective on how small we all are, and how small this lifecycle is.
Would you be interested in seeing functioning old planes?
No. I would never go to an old plane show or a museum.
So is there an element of death that interests you?
No, I don't think there's beauty in death. For me these planes are just resting there. Sometimes people see my photos and they say, Oh, that's depressing, but I don't think so. Things change and I think that's cool. If the world no longer has a use for an object, it's only because we've got something else. For me, that's beauty.
Exhibition in Berlin
What if someday your own work no longer has a use?
Sure, that's the cycle. But then someday my pictures might be worth more than the planes. I'm looking forward to that phase, not the one when they're falling off the wall. No, I'm joking. I don't take myself too seriously.
Were you always into photography?
I was a normal German kid, born in 1967 in a rather small German town called Frankenthal. I was always into exploring. I used to ride my motorbike to West Africa, which I actually did a few times and I'd always find something in those endless landscapes. Whether it was an abandoned mining operation in Algeria, or whatever. Then later I started doing this more systematically. I started following train lines, which I loved because they were once so important to everyone. Then I started taking photos and that became my first series. Now, since I quit my marketing job, I see myself more as an artist. You can't hire me. I don't do weddings or Hey can you take a photo of that plane for me? No.
How does your family feel about all the traveling?
Well, I live in Bangkok in winter where I've got a Thai girlfriend, then she visits me in Berlin in summer. It's a nice set-up. We met when I was already traveling so it's normal for her.
And where are going next?
There's a plane—actually two—in Palau, which is an island in Micronesia. Very remote again. And they're Japanese planes from WW2, so getting the details is difficult because Google isn't very good at translating Japanese forums. But as always, the mystery is half the fun.
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