Abandoned amusement park gives photog a wild ride

Kris Van de Sande’s distorted pictures of Dadipark, an abandoned Belgian amusement park, weren’t made under ideal circumstance, but they capture the distressed carnival atmosphere of the decaying attraction perfectly.

The look comes from a stroke of bad luck: While on a 2011 photographic pilgrimage to the modern ruins, Van de Sande’s gear crapped out and he was forced to make due with a loaner.

“I was limited very much with the equipment so I borrowed a fisheye lens,” he says over FaceTime from his home in Hasselt, Belgium. “I’m not a big fan of the fisheye thing but I tried to shoot as if it was just a wide-angle.”

Every iPhoneographer knows the best camera is the one you’ve got with you, and Van de Sande‘s quick adaptation to the gear on hand led to remarkable “ruin porn” images of Dadipark’s derelict rides, overgrown promenades and graffitied infrastructure. While services like Instagram and Hipstamatic make it easier than ever for a photographer to filter their way to a signature style, getting stuck with a fisheye put an odd creative crimp on Van de Sande’s normal way of shooting.

He’ll never get the chance to revisit with a fully functioning photographic arsenal: Dadipark has been wiped from the map. From its 1950 inception as a playground to distract children while their parents marveled at the local cathedral to its final years as a junkyard wonderland for adventurous curiosity seekers, the amusement park brought visitors to the sleepy town of Dadizele in West Flanders,the last stretch of land before Belgium falls into the North Sea.

After decades of expansion and modernization — changing hands from the local parish founders to a citizen-owned corporation along the way — Dadipark’s attendance slumped and the site lost its luster. Tragedy struck in 2000 when a boy was maimed on the Nautic-Jet water ride, leading to the park’s “temporary” shuttering in 2002 for renovations. It never reopened.

For some reason, the gates were flung wide open when Van de Sande and his friends arrived.

“We ran into several people in the park,” he says. “People from the area taking a stroll, a few guys were doing a photoshoot, some video guys…. I think there were four or five groups of people in the park at that moment. A few weeks later we heard that it was all closed again, so we got very lucky.”

Not having to tangle with razor wire or duck security guards makes for an easier clandestine photo shoot — but not a completely safe one. While Van de Sande, whose first big break came collaborating with a friend on articles for Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, said he loves the challenge of shooting concerts where photographers contend with stage lighting, perpetual motion and the draconian restrictions of overzealous artist management agencies, the odds of a misstep leading to the hospital are slim in that kind of a controlled environment.

Dadipark was a completely different situation, with danger lurking around every crumbling corner. The grounds were littered with broken glass. Attractions hadn’t been maintained for almost a decade, leaving them vulnerable to the vagaries of time and weather. He picked his way carefully through the park, testing his weight on every structure before clambering up. Swings, slides and metal supports seemed safe enough. The frayed and rotting rope bridge strung over the park was off-limits.

Although his family never ventured to Dadipark, Van de Sande has fond memories of childhood trips to Dutch theme park Efteling. Wandering through Dadipark’s ruins inspired mixed feelings: He felt wistful about the lost glory of a place that once brought joy to so many kids but enthralled by the haunting, overgrown remains. While businessmen wrote the place off, others saw nothing but potential.

“Some local youth reclaimed the park as theirs and they made a skatepark from old pieces of wood in an area that used to be for go-carting,” Van de Sande says. “They just reclaimed it.”

Investment proposals came and went, amounting to nothing. After the local government finally green-lit demolition, wrecking crews descended on Dadipark in 2012. Even in its death throes, the park suffered setbacks: Vandals and thieves dogged the deconstruction, and work remains incomplete while the region dries out from pervasive rains.

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Brendan Seibel

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