Go behind the scenes with Tomas van Houtryve as he shares his in-the-field experience of documenting the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral for National Geographic's February 2022 cover story.

Tomas van Houtryve is a Belgian-American photographer, artist, and filmmaker whose work merges investigative journalism, philosophy, and metaphor. His work can be found in the International Center for Photography Museum in New York, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina, the BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, and the Baudoin Lebon gallery in Paris.

We recently spoke with van Houtryve to learn more about his first National Geographic cover.

What’s the story behind the cover?

The massive blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019 devastated one of the most notable monuments in Paris, placing it at the heart of the national conversation in France in a way that had not been seen since Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 19th century. 

The 850-year-old monument is a symbol of French heritage dating back to the Middle Ages. Van Houtryve says the blaze and reconstruction created a new sense of appreciation for the cathedral.

“You can't take anything for granted,” says van Houtryve. “You always have to work on preserving and protecting and cherishing what's important around you.”

The photographer says the church had become an institution and tourist attraction that many Parisians, like himself, paid little attention to in their everyday lives. But once the fire threatened the historical location, van Houtryve said he started to look at the cathedral in a new light.

Typically, van Houtryve says he’s drawn to stories that are undercovered and overlooked. “If anything gets too famous, usually I run the other way,” he says.  

But this time around, his curiosity was sparked by the famous cathedral that has historically been used to measure the center of Paris. 

Although millions of people around the world saw footage of the initial blaze and millions of tourists visit the structure every year, van Houtryve explains that access to the reconstruction of the monument had been very limited. 

“Not many people could get in and there was kind of this whole secret universe,” he says. “Anytime there's something that you can't see, then I get really curious and motivated to try to crack that open and see what's inside.”

Podcast: Resurrecting Notre-Dame de Paris
Listen Now

(In this episode of our podcast Overheard, van Houtryve describes scaling Notre Dame’s heights and plumbing the depths of its eight centuries of history as the cathedral is being recalled to life. Listen now on Apple Podcasts.)

What’s featured on the cover?

Before Hugo’s iconic book was published in 1831, the Gothic architecture of Notre Dame had fallen out of fashion and the cathedral was in a state of neglect. But the buzz surrounding the new book led to a resurgence in popularity that was accompanied by a 19th century renovation and appreciation for its unique design. 

The aerial shot on the cover of National Geographic’s February issue heavily features the beloved and one-of-a-kind flying buttresses on top of the cathedral and the bell towers behind them, which van Houtryve says is one of the most beautiful views.

Van Houtryve says these features are what makes Notre Dame special compared to architecture from other periods and around France. 

The area, which is at the back of the cathedral, has largely been inaccessible since the fire. Van Houtryve says he tried to photograph it from other tall buildings near Notre Dame, but he was unable to find any high enough to see the damage and reconstruction. 

After also ruling out the option of flying a helicopter over the reconstruction site and using a crane or hydraulic arm to lift the camera, van Houtryve realized his options to get a shot of the whole cathedral were limited to one: drone photography. 

In 2012, he was first introduced to the technique when he cobbled together his own drone with a camera attached. Van Houtryve decided to draw on his hours of flight time and experience in order to bring life to the story.

His decision to use a drone did pose some obstacles, however. Van Houtryve says it took about six months to go through all the proper channels to get the licensing, insurance, police permissions, and flight authorizations for the drone, in addition to overall approval for the photo shoot from the public institution in charge of the restoration. He was also required by regulations to hang up flyers outside of nearby apartment buildings to warn residents on the day of the drone flight.

Even during one early morning photoshoot, police approached van Houtryve to confirm his paperwork—which van Hourtryve says caused him to miss a rainbow. 

Still, van Houtryve achieved the perfect shot. He fought for this particular image to be on the cover not only because it worked with a vertical crop, but because when he first saw it, he knew it was a special shot. He got lucky with a few moments of sunlight shining through the iconic buttresses before the clouds came in for the rest of the mid-December day.

Ultimately, van Houtryve wants to leave readers with the sense of inspiration that Notre Dame has sparked for many years. He notes that some of the earliest inhabitants of Paris were inspired by the grandeur of the building, from Hugo to the architect Viollet-le-Duc, who restored it in the 19th century.

“What's cool about Notre Dame is it's this piece of heritage that's just sailed through time like a ship,” he says. “Sometimes we ignore Notre Dame, but it's this place [that] so many people have poured so much into over so much time.”

What’s next for Tomas van Houtryve?

Van Houtryve will be at Notre Dame for a couple more years as he follows the key steps of its restoration until it is finished, which is expected to be in 2024 before the Summer Olympics in Paris. 

In the meantime, he’s also been working on a new project with his drone, photographing landscapes in the Alps that are transformed by human intervention, such as dams and mines.

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