For Dietmar Eckell, the journey to make a photograph is just as important as the final product.
A self-proclaimed “part-time adventure seeker,” Eckell said he’s had wanderlust his whole life: from his childhood, when he hiked through the woods in Sweden, to his college years, when he motorbiked through Europe and the deserts of North Africa.
His “Happy End” series is an extension of that wanderlust, one he began after leaving a long career in consumer goods to start his own business and have more time for photography.
It’s part of a long-term project called “Restwert,” (a German word meaning residual value) which has taken Eckell all over the world in pursuit of abandoned structures and sites, including shipwrecks, amusement parks, and Olympic venues.
“Even if their material value is written off, their stories and aesthetics remain,” Eckell said via email. “Some of these objects interest me because of their unbelievable backgrounds, some because they look like they came out of a sci-fi movie, and some trigger their own memories of forgotten days.”
In the case of “Happy End,” a series devoted exclusively to chronicling plane crashes, those memories inevitably involve some degree of misfortune. But Eckell said he only photographs wrecks in which no one was killed, so the stories he tells are ultimately hopeful.
“Pictures of fatal airplane crashes are all over the news. There’s no need for me to document graves,” he said. “I want to surprise the viewer with stories of heroes and miracles and give their viewing experience a ‘happy end.’ “
Personally, he said, there’s a joy in playing treasure hunter—that is, finding records of nonfatal crashes through online databases and then going out into the world to track them down. The types of wrecks he sought—in which all the passengers survived and the mechanical remains were too far away to clean up—are rare, which only made success more rewarding.
“It’s just a great feeling to finally sit on the wing of a plane that you’ve been trying to reach for years,” he said. “The stories of how I got there are ‘priceless’ for me and my main motivation to keep going.”
Eckell’s journeys were long and often circuitous. The locations spanned the globe—from Mexico to the Yukon to Iceland—and the final destinations were often remote and unmarked.
Along the way, he slept under the stars in the Sahara and encountered rebel forces and drove for 26 hours. He skirted polar bears and got stuck in the mud and bribed crooked cops. And he used about every mode of transportation imaginable, from floatplanes to ATVs to underwater scooters.
Most of his adventures involved some amount of failure and hardship. In Manitoba, Canada, he crashed his octocopter and lost the camera attached, along with 300 photos. On that same trip, he fell down a hole and broke his fibula.
“It does not make a lot of sense commercially. I lost more than $10,000 worth of equipment and I could have gotten into real trouble,” he said. “But I would do it again, and I will continue. Some things in life would never happen if you always start with a business plan.”
But Eckell said his series is about more than his personal experiences and even about more than the histories of each of the wrecks. It is, he said, part of a larger exploration of humanity and mortality.
“It’s about the never-ending struggle of mankind to build and maintain, about the temporality of man-made objects, human endeavors, and visions,” he said. “I document these structures before nature takes them back. Maybe it’s a way to make their stories immortal.”