What Abandoned Security Checkpoints Reveal About Geopolitics

Photographer Josef Schulz documents the obsolete architecture of political borders.

It’s fairly easy to hop from one country to the next in Europe today thanks to the 1985 Schengen Agreement—which grants free travel between member nations—and the adoption of shared currency, aka the Euro, in 1995. But the vestiges of strict border control remain in the form of shuttered security checkpoints.


Photographer Josef Schulz, who is based in Düsseldorf, has documented many of these abandoned structures in a series called Übergang. His own personal history influenced the project: a Poland native born in 1966, Schulz had no access to other countries.

“Most borders aren’t fixed forever,” Schulz says. “They were put up because of political decisions, and people got used to it. It’s more a border in our mind, your cross it and and a lot changes: the language, the social rules—even the coffee tastes different. This kind of barrier fascinated me. On the other hand, I was interested in a kind of architectural survey about how the different countries deal with borders. Some build welcoming places, some create frighting situations, and some just use prefabricated elements, like containers.”

Schulz photographed most of the buildings between 2005 and 2008. Some of the structures have aged well whereas others sport peeling paint and rusted siding. Certain countries went to lengths to reflect the local vernacular architecturally, like the traditional wood-clad chalet at the Italy-Austria border. Some lean modern, like the station at Mulhouse on the French-German border with its blue-glazed-brick cladding and large glass expanses. The crossing at La Forge des Molles, at the border between Andorra and Spain, features a functionalist—yet beautiful—glass canopy and streamlined, Art Moderne-style kiosks.

When he shot the images, Schulz did so as a documentary statement and a reminder of the past. But in light of the refugee crisis and recent terrorist attacks in Europe, the images have renewed meaning.

“I’ve seen them from an artistic point of view, but nowadays these images have much more political importance,” Schulz says. “We are now back in a big discussion of building up borders again, but it’s not about to giving up your own culture, it’s about a world which is moving closer together where we solve problems with and not against each other. These checkpoints could remind us of the past, which wasn’t always glorious, and to encourage us to do better.”

Check out Schulz’s images in the slide show above.


All Photos: Josef Schulz

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.