Stephan Vanfleteren has spent many memorable moments of his photographic career photographing the villages, bars, derelict factories, misty landscapes, boarded up shops and colourful individuals that make Belgium such a diverse and fascinating corner of Europe. He describes his long-term project Belgicum, the product of many years of wandering, as follows:
'Belgicum' is a photographic project on the uniqueness that is Belgium. Not an objective reflection of a country but a subjective, black-and-white photographic document seen through my dark eyes.
A voyage of discovery through a small country in the centre of Europe around the turn of the century. Not the colourful pictures of tourist attractions or folklore in Flanders or Wallonia, but a self-willed, recalcitrant and nostalgic picture. Rarely photographic journalism
of political or historical importance but rather the frayed edge of this homeland.
'Belgicum' is not a vision of the contemporary Belgium of shopping malls, roundabouts or housing developments, but of troubled landscapes and run-down buildings. 'Belgicum' is not the personification of the 'modern' Belgian in a tailback, in the office or behind his barbecue on a warm summer evening, but rather a glance behind the curtains, between the wallpaper of poverty and loneliness.
For more than fifteen years I sauntered, lost and agitated, through the territory of 'Belgicum', with emotion and patriotism. First, as a current affairs photographer for a daily paper, and later more at my own pace.
Throughout the flat country, across language borders, through dilapidated industrial basins, along never-ending ribbon development and even now and then across the national frontier into French Flanders. A trip through a scarred
country in search of an unfindable identity, but with the melancholic soul of a 181 year-old nation.
Why this way of looking? Why this pursuit on the platform of time and space passing by? Why can I not just fully enjoy a newly constructed beautiful building without having to deal with the recurring thought that it came about at the cost of something else, something that was there before, something that originated at an earlier moment - whether it was fallow land, a house or whatever. Is it fear of farewell? Fear of the new? Fear of change?
Maybe it is a residual 'little trauma' of a boy who saw the coast being converted into a concrete dragon. This neurotic fuss, this rapid progress and drastic change make me sad. Our economy resembles a Canadian poplar that just keeps on
growing until it becomes too high and snaps in the first big storm because of its weight. A pity that our world is no longer an old oak tree or a weeping willow. As a pupil at a strict school I remember the moment when the history
teacher said the words: 'How can you have anything against progress?' I wanted to put up my hand and register
a small protest. But then I didn't have the nerve. Now I do...
Belgium has recently won the dubious accolade of being the country which has gone for the longest time without a government. On 17 February 2011 the country managed to break the previous record of 249 days, held by none other than Iraq, a country riddled with ethnic, religious and regional divisions.
Though there are few other similarities between post-war Iraq and Belgium, the seat of the European Parliament and one of the founding members of the European Union, the governmental crisis has accentuated a longstanding sense of disillusionment with the country's motto of "Strength Through Unity" and brought deep seated fissures back to the surface.
A relatively young country at 181 years, Belgium was born out of complex territorial realignments in the Low Countries following the French Revolutionary Wars and the perceived dominance of northern Dutch Protestants over the predominantly Catholic southerners. MORE