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no matter her stinking breath” (Stephan Vanfleteren about Charleroi) 

 

It is a dark and gloomy day. One of those that are typically Belgian, although, ever since I got here -it already seems months it is just weeks- we have had none. A day we decided was ideal to visit my grandmothers city of birth. City of birth, although her real roots can’t be found there : apparently her parents just happened to be there when she was born.

Charleroi, an old cole mining city in the south of Belgium. In ‘those days’, it was the 3th richest area of Europe. Cole mines and heavy metal factories were so blooming that they had to import ‘hands’ from the Flanders, Italy, Spain and Greece. That was probably the only reason why my great grandparents were there before the first world war, and why my gran had ‘Dampremy’ on her birth certificate.

Since then it has changed a lot. The mines are closed, so have the factories. And apparently, for the last 50 years nothing significant has been done to restore economy, to re-school the unemployed, no reconversion at all, to bring life back to this deteriorating place.

To us, Flemish, Charleroi has a bad reputation : we see it as the example of all that is wrong in the southern part of our dear country. It is poor, dangerous, dark and gloomy, and corrupt (‘Palermo by the Samber‘). More then 1/4 of the population is unemployed, and has been for years. It is also known as ‘the ugliest city in the world’.

Charleroi is obviously not the most logical tourist destination. But we went anyway.

 

Driving past the center towards the Musée de la Photography made us think, just for a minute or so, that it might not be that bad. Beautiful city villas and mini castles, dating from the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, one next to the other, not all in ruins, witness some of the prosperity the city once had. Only to be put back into reality by the photos of Stephan Vanfleteren -my favorite Belgian photographer- : Touching, dark, hurting and depressive at times, if not always. Confirming our expectations.

Stephan Vanfleteren has a way of getting to people on the edge of society, and to express what he sees in a different way then most photographers. Over the years, he has spend weeks, days, nights, wandering through the town, which he learned to love, meeting with its people. Although poor and unemployed, the Carolos (inhabitants of Charleroi) are extremely friendly and hospitable. And although the situation is still extremely bad, some changes and improvements seem to be coming. Slowly.

 

But also the words in which he describes the city are as catchy as the images.

‘The unemployment numbers are shocking. Nowhere in Belgium the numbers are visually translated into reality. You see it in the streets, the houses, in the bars, the gambling houses… There is a name for it : degradation. You can not only read the misery off the streets, but off the peoples faces. The face of poverty is pale, gloomy, stupefied, it has broken teeth. In the past pneumoconiosis caused early death, today it is alcohol and nicotine that break the adult bodies.’

We had lunch in the center. It had started to drizzle, it was darker and gloomier still. Not the most glamorous way to see any city. It was crowded with people going to the Sunday market, lots of fruits, nicer and fuller then on the market in my town it seemed, and other food, plants, clothes… We didn’t stay long enough to feel the poverty and misery Stephan Vanfleteren found, but honestly, we weren’t really looking. I am no Vanfleteren wannabee, nor am I what we call a ‘disaster tourist’ (ramptourist), enjoying photographing other peoples misery and then quickly go home to forget all about it. I am glad to have seen the exhibition, and what better location could it have been than in the town that is its subject. It certainly is a place with potential, and I can only hope that the situation gradually improves, and thad one day, we can see Charleroi again in its full glory.

If you can’t make it to Charleroi (you should at least try), buy the book :

‘Charleroi, il est claire que le gris est noir, mais Charleroi sera blanc, un jour’, Stephan Vanfleteren. 

exhibition until dec 6, 2015

photos : one of the main square of Charleroi, in front of the ugly church, the others images of the exhibition. 

NB Charleroi is also known as ‘Brussels South’, the Ryan Air hub. It is 50 km from Brussels.