Weeds penetrate the wrought iron grid of the greenhouse standing next to a boarded up castle in Belgium. French photographer Jonathan “Jonk” Jimenez climbed through the shattered glass to capture nature reclaiming the site man has long forgotten.
“It’s a rusty place with broken windows, but still it’s beautiful. I like to find beauty where you think you cannot find beauty,” Jonk explains. This quest was the impetus behind his travels to more than 700 abandoned locations in 33 countries on four continents, resulting in a new book, Naturalia: Reclaimed by Nature.
Before greenery creeped into his work, Jonk got started documenting graffiti artists in Barcelona that used the city’s deserted places as canvases. He even tried a stint as a street artist himself, hence the pseudonym. Back in his hometown of Paris, Jonk explored hidden corners of the urban world by scaling rooftops, weaving through subway tunnels, or spending days beneath ground in the city’s catacombs.
“I found a thrill in that activity, the adrenaline that I have been looking for in everything I do in my life,” he writes about his work. However, as he told National Geographic over the phone, Jonk focuses outside the city now, and no longer considers himself an urban explorer–part of the growing community of thrill-seekers who enter (often trespassing) abandoned spaces for the sake of photography or simply for unadulterated adrenaline.
Sometimes that adrenaline comes at a cost. While visiting a brewery in the north of France, a dog barked at the camera-toting intruder, alerting security. Then the guard called the police. “It’s trespassing in the sense that most places are private property, but it’s trespassing without breaking or forcing into anything. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they realize we are just photographers and send us away. This [guard] must have been having a bad day.”
Jonk still continues his quest to see the unseen, from a forgotten Soviet military base in Belarus to an overgrown castle in Croatia. Without investigating the history of the sites, his work captures a specific moment of passing time. French historian and archaeologist Alain Schnapp describes the juxtaposition seen in Jonk’s photographs as “a long journey between memory and forgetting, ruins and vegetation, modernity and antiquity.”
Decaying buildings remind us of the inevitable process of history. Eventually the wild world reclaims what it once called its own. “Some people see something very dark, like the world would look like after the apocalypse," Jonk says. "But for me, what I like to show is that nature is stronger than man. At the end, nature will win.”