Zoink by Zaptronic

Interview Urban


Once a writer, Stefan den Engelsen is now a photographer, documenting the state of Belgium. I find it fascinating how many photographers document Belgium, each with a different and unique view. Check out his ongoing project, 'Belstalgia - State of Belgium'

Tell us a little bit about your background -  what led you to becoming a photographer, and to doing what you do today?

The short answer to that question is travelling. I was born in Amsterdam and grew up in a nearby urban planners’ dream town, where everything and everyone looked the same. From when I reached the adult age into my late twenties, I seized every opportunity to travel. Not always to exotic places. If my budget did not allow me to go any further than a small town with an odd name in a southern province of the Netherlands, I would just go there, to explore, see something new. I would usually go with my two closest friends. One of them was much more into photography than I was, back then. I always considered myself more of a writer, carrying a pen and a Moleskine where ever I went. But he was devoted, always investing in upgrading his gear and experimenting with techniques and people. I did not really start taking photography seriously until around 2010, when I got my first DSLR camera and went on one of our memorable train trips to Russia and Ukraine. It was good fun and writing started to seem too cumbersome to record my observations . The things we saw were also too overwhelming to try and capture them in words. I taught myself a thing or two about post-processing and handling the camera better, and enjoyed every step of the way. I couldn’t live without photography now.

Can you tell us a bit more about how you approach photography?

I seem to remember a quote from Anton Corbijn, saying that what you gain in technical skill/ability, you lose in creativity. I sort of adhere to this principle. I do not need to know the exact purpose of every single menu option on my camera or in photo software. I just want to go out there, observe and explore, and frame what I see. I did attend a few photo workshops in Rotterdam, and although I learned a few good tricks, I was mostly absorbed by the scenery where those workshops took place (Rotterdam at night and the Maasvlakte). Photography is storytelling, poetry, art and exploration all in one. There is also a therapeutic dimension. When I hop over a bunch of disused railroad tracks in a desolate part of Belgium my mind never wanders, I am floating and perfectly relaxed. It is a great counter balance to a busy daytime job, and I am not sure it would give me the same satisfaction if photography were my livelihood.

What defines a good picture for you? Or what are you looking for in a picture?

Photography is an odd phenomenon, because many of the most admired photos are not necessarily technical masterpieces; people seem to like them because they show locations, situations that they have never seen before or would love to see or experience for themselves. Because the photographer was in the right place at the right time (not always a coincidence of course…), and sacrificed sharpness and focus to capturing motion or an ephemeral thought. Therefore, as a photographer, I suggest investing in where you go and what you like to see. That being said, I do like a certain degree of symmetry and straight lines in photos. Today’s photo software makes it easier than ever to obtain it, of course, but I am not likely to ever present a messy or out-of-focus image. But perhaps it is simply a phase I haven’t arrived to yet.

Which camera and lenses do you use?

After having used a Canon 7D Mk I for many years, I changed to a full frame system camera two years ago. I kept my wonderfully reliable and versatile 24-105 lens. I rarely change it for any other lens, although I do sometimes rent lenses for specific purposes. As explained before, photography for me is about going places, seeing and feeling things. I may still upgrade soon though, thinking about a Canon 5D Mk IV or perhaps a Canon R6.

Which other photographers, designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?

For many years I was sort of all over the place, doing urbex, black and white, light trails, urban, landscapes, what have you…It’s only two years or so since I found my niche in documenting post-industrial landscapes. Andrew Borowiec’s work guided me on this path. I also follow Kane Lyons from Liverpool, Carl Corey, and Michel Carlson from Pittsburg. Safe to say rustbelts and post-industrial landscapes are my tune and Belgium is the perfect place for it. I do also have several of Stephan Vanfleteren’s photo books, it is a real treat to sit down on Sunday mornings with a mug of hot coffee and skim through them. Brilliant documentation of Belgium. At the same time, I want to understand what I see in Belgium, and so I would recommend reading the books of Pascal Verbeken, more specifically Brutopia and Grand Central Belge, about the most intriguing Brussels stories and the lightning fast development of the railways in Belgium in the 19th century. Lastly, I admire the dedication of Nicolas Springael, a local Brussels photographer who has a magnificent small gallery in Les Marolles, which I first visited in 2003. I keep going regularly because there is always new work to see from the most fantastic places around the world.

© Pictures by Stefan den Engelsen