(All photos: Hans van Vrouwerf)
It’s estimated that every year between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close down in the USA. In Europe, the statistics vary by country: approximately 20 Church of England churches are closed per year in the UK; in Holland, the statistics are much higher, at around two per week.
There are ongoing debates about what to do with all these unused churches. In some instances, they have been repurposed: churches have become bars, skate parks and art galleries. But some churches do not get to have a second life. Many are abandoned to deteriorate slowly. Photographer Hans van Vrouwerf has a fascination with lost faith and forgotten places of worship, and has visually documented about 20 abandoned churches around Europe. We spoke with van Vrouwerf about photographing formerly sacred places that have been left to decay.
What attracted you to shooting abandoned churches and other places of worship?
It’s not because I’m religious of any kind—far from it, actually. But what attracts me is the fact that faith and believing seems to be [becoming a thing] of the past. The modern life and the fast pace we are moving in almost seems to rationalize people a lot more. But a place of worship will remain even though nobody is interested anymore. That’s actually the most fascinating part to me: How could this happen?
How do you find the abandoned churches to photograph?
It’s sometimes a big search throughout the internet. Google is a big help of course, but also people telling me about it because they know my work. Also driving around in different countries and finding them by coincidence helps.
How does it feel to photograph something that was once so grand and essential and that is now decayed?
Very special! In all of these places you will get a remarkable feeling. The acoustics in the place make it grand and make you feel small. But the fact that nobody cares anymore is what gives that extra, maybe rather strange, eerie feeling.
There is a tangible human presence in some of the images—sheet music on a piano, two chairs arranged for a conversation, as though someone just left. Do you know any particular stories about how or why these spaces have become deserted?
Some are really just left to rot. Sounds harsh but it is the truth. Nobody wants to be there anymore. Faith has lost power in those places. But sometimes places also remain abandoned for several years just because there are no funds. What also will happen is that they want to reconvert the place into something different and they are trying to get the money sorted out, or licenses in some EU countries. This can take years.
What are your three favorite photographs from this series, and can you tell us why?
One of the best is the library I found in an old monastery. I really just love the light and of course the complete mess of books. Another one I really like is the small chapel with the Mary statue in it. I can’t explain why but this just gives me a relaxing feeling. I like all of them but another one that’s special is the chapel where you can see where the cross used to hang and the rope coming down from the ceiling. It looks like everything has been stolen. You can see a vague text on top of the arch that says, I guess: “In Christus liefde allen een,” which is Dutch for something like “In Christ’s love we all are one,” and in combination with this image it just makes a very weird contrast.