Theo Derksen’s Disneyfication, over twenty years in the making, a book of vivid color double-page spreads, offers a global vision of metropolises, including Bucharest, Berlin, Egypt, Tokyo, Dubai, Chongqing, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore and Las Vegas. It is by no means total or all-encompassing.  There has been a deliberate choice to not take pictures of the big capitalist centres, London and New York. Proportionately most photographs are taken in cities in China.  

A meeting with Jean Baudrillard in 1995 got Derksen started on the project and the book opens with a quote from the philosopher: “It is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate that there is nothing behind them.” We are then, I presume, intended to see the pictures in this book as an unmasking of images.  He says all his photographs are straight, observational pictures, but each acknowledge the ways in which so much of the world is now made up of montages and collisions between the alluring spectacle of commercial images and their settings. As well as Baudrillard, whose own photography was fascinated with trompe l’oeil, Luigi Ghirri and Martin Parr are also relevant—Ghirri with his wry response to consumer culture’s pervasiveness and Parr’s more abrasive depictions of people caught amidst image clichés.

Only Derksen’s is a response to the greater intensification of the image world in urban spaces, the digital-borne ubiquity and proliferation of images that now can be reproduced on almost everything. A photograph from Cairo, for example, sets the back-end of a tourist coach, adorned with a flashy montage of pictures advertising the country’s attractions, against the foreground detail of the flaking grey-painted surface of a kiosk structure.  It typifies the kind of formal collisions running through these pictures, the way in which hyped-up promotional appeal jars and collides with a situation and context that is dull and grey by comparison. The Cairo picture is however given another dimension and visual complication by the fact the image of one of the Pyramids on the coach is also grey as it is drained of color for contrast against the other colorful tourist images.    

These digital globally widespread images often have a material presence in Derksen’s photographs.  Their surfaces are not untouched or seamless, but often shown marked, damaged, peeled back, broken up.  City dwellers crop up in the photographs, but are more incidental and inactive, often just going about their business, amidst the clamouring signage.  In a photograph from Chongqing, among a series of facades bearing images showing architectural visions of city development, a solitary man appears to be caught absorbed in removing something from the metallic surface of the one screen that does not bear images. But there are no real signs of resistance and protest to the spectacle in this book. There is the violent graffiti scrawling over an image of a young woman in a picture taken in Bucharest, but this is dislocated from the figure of a man cutting between a car and the advertisement, head bowed.  

The registration of the social real presents us with people’s dormancy and passivity, a certain obliviousness to the images that now fill their worlds. The action and animation seems to all be in the image world. Derksen is fascinated in showing us the fractures and disorientating effect of the theme park world of urban spaces, even going as far as to invert a few photographs in the book to further confuse us. But the way in which he photographs people in these cities means they neither compete with nor contest that image world. In one of the most charged juxtapositions, taken in Dubai, a worker is enmeshed by the cage trolley he is pushing and dwarfed by the orientalising image of a woman’s face behind him.  Setting up a fantasy of sexual enslavement, the woman in the huge ad is adorned and eroticised with decorative chains, one of which suggestively runs through her mouth. All this is played out against the implied subservience and entrapment of the worker. The image spectacle is not undone or unmasked here, instead Derksen’s photograph shows how its allure and spell dominates and binds


Professor of Photography,

Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research,

Faculty of Creative Industrie.

Review is on



FOTODOK BOOK CLUB 3 oktober2019.

Guests are: Samuel Fosso, Ilvy Njioiktjien, Csilla Klenyanszki and Theo Derksen.

The FOTODOK Book Club is a live talk show in which photographer and photo book lover ROB HORNSTRA talks on stage with makers of photo books: photographers, designers and publishers are put to the test about their latest project. International guests of allure tell about the story behind their latest project and about the choices they made in the realization of their publication. Lively conversations with the occasional critical note guaranteed.

Today The Correspondent published a selection of my Disneyfication images as a part of Rob Wijnberg's article on; Truth be sold: How truth became a product by Rob Wijnberg, founding editor and a context article by Lise Straatsma, image editor.


Truth be sold: how truth became a product

In premodern times, truth offered hope of redemption in the afterlife. As modern society emerged, truth brought us hope of a better world for our descendants. In the postmodern era, truth freed us from false authorities and pretentious ideologies. But what does our own truth still aspire to achieve,...Rob Wijnberg.



TIMES SQUARE WOULDN’T be Times Square without all the flashy billboards and blinking signage, but if you’re the type who’d rather see it without them, you’re not alone. Photographer Theo Derksen is also peeved by commercial displays and how they’ve overrun the builtscape, a subject he brilliantly documents in Disneyfication.

The book depicts the myriad glitzy, ginormous ads obscuring public spaces around the world. Derksen began shooting it in 2003, after noticing how such imagery was increasingly being blown up huge and plastered everywhere from shopping avenues to construction sites, particularly in cities like Beijing and Tokyo.

“The problem was that it took away the local identity and sense of place, since the images were mostly European or American,” he says. “They showed a painless world where nothing bad could happen, and where the main goal was spending your money.”

It reminded Derksen of the ideas of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who he met at Holland Festival, where they both exhibited photographs in 1999. Baudrillard's cult 1981 book Simulacra and Simulations (which enjoys a cameo in The Matrix) describes images as representations with no foothold in reality, and that they often distract from it. “It is dangerous to unmask images,” Baudrillard writes, “since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them.”

That quote opens Derksen’s book, and he takes it as a personal challenge. While traveling through 50 cities across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the US, Derksen plunked his full-frame camera before walls and fences dressed up with fashion models, urban development schemes, and tourist destinations. But his focus wasn’t so much the giant idealized imagery as the local context—a ladder propped on a wall, a worker passing by, an ugly graffiti scrawl.

It exposes the ads for what they really are: a veneer overlaying the real world and masking its social, political, and economic problems. “It’s covering up,” Derksen says. "You can cover up ugly urban places, your values, anything.”

Laura Mallonee, Journalist