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Photographing Europe's Abandoned Border Crossings

After nearly 20 years of passport-free travel in parts of Western and Central Europe, many former checkpoints resemble ghost towns.

The deserted landmarks of Europe's open borders. (Ignacio Evangelista)

"Girls! Girls!" a motorcyclist enthusiastically yelled at Ignacio Evangelista, his face red from the heat of the day as he pulled his sweaty head out from under his helmet. The two men were alone at the Slavonice-Fratres border between Austria and the Czech Republic. Neither shared a native tongue and English was a challenge. "I didn't understand anything at all," Evangelista recounts. "He seemed in a hurry and scared me a bit." After some time, the Spanish photographer deciphered what the motorcyclist was looking for: A brothel.

Europe's border towns are known to be hot spots for prostitution. But to the motorcyclist's dismay, this particular border was bereft of human activity: immigration officials, passport control, and, yes, even brothels have long since vanished. Since 1995, when the Schengen Treaty liberated travel between seven Western European countries (it's now up to 26), many of Europe's old border crossings are now rather desolate. While a few were renovated, most of these bureaucratic outposts are fading into rusted, abandoned structures.

A former border crossing station between Austria and Hungary.  (Ignacio Evangelista)
The Nickelsdorf-Hegyeshalom border that connects Austria and Hungary. (Ignacio Evangelista)

Evangelista has photographed many of these checkpoints over the last couple of years. Aptly titled "After Schengen," his project reinforces the suddenness with which many of Europe's border crossings went silent. Brightly colored vehicle gates remain at some boundaries, but they stand open, implying a warmer "Welcome," rather than "Stop!" (the latter can still be found on weathered signs and asphalt).

A checkpoint along the mountainous borders of France and Spain. (Ignacio Evangelista)
Along a road connecting the Czech Republic with Austria is a border post that's intact, but bereft of activity. (Ignacio Evangelista)

"When I am at the border point, I am confronted with all kinds of signs and barriers which at some point have regulated movements, itineraries, and behaviors," Evangelista writes in an email. "Now they appear absurd and out of context."

Vegetation now grows around this border crossing in Hungary. But old security signs remain untouched. (Ignacio Evangelista)
Doesn't this border between the Czech Republic and Austria feel eerie? (Ignacio Evangelista)

Despite the irrationality sometimes associated with national borders, the Schengen Treaty is as much an anomaly as it is an achievement. Many nations within the Schengen Area—Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain, France, and others—once represented a web of ambitious empires. The sudden abandonment of border crossings displayed in Evangelista's work, therefore, offers a reminder that Europe is in fact enjoying an historic era of peace.

Some politicians from Europe's most influential countries, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, support a reversal of the open border policy. That's a move Evangelista is staunchly against.

"When I was a teenager, to travel from Spain to Germany meant crossing two or three borders (depending on the route) with stops, showing passports, police controls, and also using three different currencies," he says. "I would like some kind of 'United States of Europe' with a federal system," the photographer explains. "For me that's the right direction."

The movie trailer below is from a French comedy titled "Nothing to Declare", which tells the story of a Belgian customs unit that must suddenly coordinate with their French neighbors.

Regardless of what the future holds for Europe's border agreement, "After Schengen" is a project Evangelista feels he was destined to pursue. As a young man he would sit for hours and scrutinize the world's maps, questioning 'How a boundary could be angled with such precision?' Standing along Europe's liberated borders, despite their ruinous character, seemingly eases that discomfort.

"Sometimes I like to just stay on the line and jump from a country to another [sic], again and again," Evangelista says. "[I]t connects with my memories as a child...I'm really jumping the lines of the map!"

*All images courtesy of Ignacio Evangelista. His other photography work can be seen here.

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