It all started as a new hobby. Today Roman Robroek, one of the members of our community, works for Europa Nostra, an organization that aims to protect cultural heritage in Europe. Find out how he fell in love with abandoned places and where it led him.
PhotoClaim: How old were you when you had the camera in your hands for the very first time?
Roman Robroek: Earliest I can remember is that I’ve must have been in my early 20s. I didn’t start photographing seriously before that to be honest. Obviously, I snapped the occasional holiday pictures like most of us do, but that’s not comparable to what I do now.
PC: Was it love at the first sight or… how did your relationship with a camera begin?
RR: I started very slowly. Around 9 years ago I was desperately looking for a new hobby. I enjoyed taking photos and I was highly interested in history and architecture. When browsing the Internet, I coincidently came across an abandoned castle in Belgium that looked stunning, had a fascinating history and triggered my interest to take photos. Soon after that, I found out that there is a whole community behind this type of photography. This is where it all began.
PC: Just a hobby or a way of life? How and when did you realise that you want photography to become a part of your career?
RR: It all started as a hobby, but it didn’t take long before it became more than that. At first, I started photographing abandoned buildings once every month. Then it became twice a month and then at least every week. I did that for about a year or two, and since the past years I’ve been traveling less often. When I travel though, I travel further away than I used to, and I stay away longer. So instead of going for one day to Belgium, I now travel for nine days to Georgia for example.
After doing it for about three years, I started winning awards and the press noticed me. A couple of my articles were published in renowned international press like BBC, CNN and The Guardian. That’s where it got a lot more serious for me.
PC: The first photo that you were truly satisfied with?
RR: I took this photo during my first trip to Italy, which is my favourite country to visit for photographing abandoned buildings (and holiday!). This is a hallway in an abandoned sanatorium that was huge. I spent hours inside and still didn’t get to see a couple of rooms. The light, plants and architecture you see in this spot are exactly what I love. The photo brings me right back to that moment when I was standing there, and it still reminds me how much I enjoyed it.
PC: Your first steps in the photography industry? Where did you start?
RR: My biggest jump into the photography industry was due to the publication of my article about the abandoned Casino in Constanta in the international press and winning the Art of Building 2016 award. This opened many doors to get my work out there.
PC: How did you fall in love with abandoned places?
RR: When I started my photography journey, I mostly saw empty, abandoned and decayed buildings. It didn’t take long before curiosity struck me. What was the story behind those buildings? Who used to live there? What purpose did these objects serve and why were they abandoned? This curiosity created a close bond between me and abandoned buildings. Since then I visited so many beautiful locations all over the world. The opportunity to take a picture behind closed doors is a truly unique experience, both relaxing and enticing at the same time. I immerse in the surroundings but am also watching my every step and listening closely to every sound trying not to draw any attention.
PC: Do you feel safe when photographing abandoned places?
RR: I watch my step but walk inside with no fear. I stay focused on both taking pictures and moving around the space. I feel safe in most of the places.
PC: Do you arrange the spaces a bit or do you photograph them exactly the way they are once you approach them?
RR: I do not arrange the spaces that I photograph. I take pleasure in photographing the places exactly how I find them. Because of that, the shot isn’t always perfect but at least it feels ‘real’. Next to that, I see no reason in going through stuff, touching or moving objects that aren’t mine.
PC: What about editing?
RR: Editing is surely part of the process. I also find it fun but do not really spend a lot of time on it. I dedicate around 10-15 minutes to each picture.
PC: When did you realise that you can make money on your pictures?
RR: That started when I was approached by a press agency that I enjoyed working with for a couple of years. They contacted me concerning the article about the abandoned Casino in Constanta and made sure to get it published in international press. The international press would license the photos and pay per photo to publish it on their website. That’s when I started writing and photographing more for magazines. Most of the editorials got published in the last couple of years. Thanks to that my name and work became more recognizable and I started selling more prints as well. I also had a couple of exhibitions, but these are not really my thing.
PC: When and how did you find out that your photos are getting stolen?
RR: A couple of years ago, I came across a service where I could upload my photos and they’d regularly check if my photos were published somewhere online, quite similar to PhotoClaim. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a fruitful collaboration and I stopped working with them. I explored the internet for alternatives and that’s when I found PhotoClaim.
PC: How did your relationship with PhotoClaim begin?
RR: PhotoClaim was one of the first services that I discovered after I stopped working with the previous provider. I approached them and signed up for a collaboration. I was put through a selection process and was happy to learn that I was accepted. After that, I was assigned a personal ‘case manager’ which is really great. We work really well together, and it feels very exclusive to have a personal case manager assigned to you.
PC: How do you enjoy working with PhotoClaim? What has changed since you started the cooperation?
RR: I enjoy working with PhotoClaim a lot. In the beginning it started in a bit ‘old fashioned’ way. My case manager would send me a PDF file with possible copyright infringements, and I had to print the file, check the boxes with websites that published my photos without permission, scan it and send it back. It used to require some effort, but it was paying off. However, since a few months I’ve been working with the PhotoClaim app – the whole process is digitalized and automated now. Such a big improvement which saves a lot of time!
I have already won a handful of cases and the amount of money PhotoClaim has managed to recover is positively surprising. PhotoClaim has a personal approach which is something I truly appreciate. You’re not just another ‘number‘ to them, but they really invest in the relationship with the photographer.
PC: How aware of image theft are the photographers in your surroundings/community?
RR: I think they are aware of the fact that images are being stolen, but they do not necessarily know how to fight image theft. Whenever I get the chance, I do my best to mention how PhotoClaim can help them.
PC: What is your definition of success?
RR: Success for me happens when your work makes you immensely happy and proud. Success is measured in happiness, not in money or fame.
PC: What has been your most memorable moment, the real highlight, in your career so far?
RR: My real highlight has been when Europa Nostra, an organization that aims to protect cultural heritage in Europe, approached me for a collaboration. I started working with them and now I photograph endangered cultural heritage all over Europe. Thanks to this cooperation I have been enabled to photograph exclusive projects like the Buffer Zone in Nicosia, Cyprus. I enjoy working with them a lot and can’t wait for what the future brings.
PC: What is your drive for taking pictures? What do you enjoy shooting the most?
RR: What I enjoy the most is photographing buildings or sites that have made an impact in history, for whatever reason. Preferably, the building is in heavy decay, has a couple objects left inside, is covered in plants, has architectural highlights and a fascinating history.
PC: What’s next?
I have a couple of projects in the making. I have a plan to photograph an abandoned car graveyard in Sweden, travel to Armenia to photograph multiple abandoned buildings, spend 1,5 weeks in Italy and go to Poland to photograph an endangered Power Plant. Then, I’m planning to leave the continent and take pictures of buildings in the USA.
Also, I’ve been working with a professor from the University of Liege on a 3D project / business that we will reveal soon.
PC: One dream you wish to come true?
RR: I’d be more than happy if the world never runs out of abandoned buildings to photograph, and I’d be able to enter and exit them safely.
PC: Your call to action for the photographers who might not be aware that their photos are getting stolen?
RR: Sign-up and start working with PhotoClaim! It’s free and it doesn’t do any harm if you have your photographs monitored on a daily basis.