To coincide with my National Geographic cover story on Notre-Dame, I was interviewed by Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, for Nat Geo’s Overheard podcast.
We spoke about how I worked with rope access technicians and aerial drones to photograph the historic reconstruction of the Notre-Dame cathedral of Paris. You can listen to the full episode Apple Podcasts.
The full transcript of our conversation was published on the National Geographic website, and is copied below.
National Geographic photographer Tomas van Houtryve documents the layered history and revival of one of the world’s most enduring landmarks, Notre-Dame de Paris. A reflection of the city and part of its soul, the cathedral has been ravaged, reimagined, and resurrected over the course of eight centuries. Badly damaged by fire in 2019, Notre-Dame is again in the hands of skilled artisans who are braving dizzying heights and dangerous conditions to bring the cathedral back to life.
TOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE (PHOTOGRAPHER): I took a taxi there, and it was still dark when I got there. It’s kind of like entering a space station or something that you show up, shed all your clothes, put it in lockers, go through this vestibule, and you come out on the other side wearing a climbing helmet, a respirator mask, and a hazmat suit.
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): Tomas van Houtryve is a photographer, and he’s telling me about his first day on the job for a National Geographic assignment.
VAN HOUTRYVE: So the first day I went up the spiral staircases of the north bell tower, these long, long stone spiral staircases. And then you pop out at one of the levels, and you’re on this balustrade or balcony with all of these gargoyles, the famous iconic gargoyles. It’s called the Galerie de Chimères in French, and they’re all sitting overlooking Paris. And Paris was sort of twinkling in the predawn atmosphere. You can see the Seine River from there. You can see the Eiffel Tower.
BRIGGS: Tomas’s view of Paris is unique … He’s gazing over the city from a place that has inspired countless artists, from novelist Victor Hugo to painter Henri Matisse to dancer Gene Kelly—not to mention more than 800 years of devout worshippers.
VAN HOUTRYVE: And then we went up even more spiral staircases to the very top of the south bell tower. And then you could sort of see like, you know, the sun rising over the Seine and all of Paris stretched out below you, and directly below me was the wound of the cathedral, the burnt roof, the debris, the charred bits and pieces, melted parts of scaffolding. So you get this double blow of the beauty of this unique perspective of Paris and then I could see up close for the first time the level of devastation that had hit the cathedral.
A team of rope specialists secures a loose stone at the corner of the nave and the south transept in the cathedral.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve
BRIGGS: In April 2019, a devastating fire threatened to consume the iconic cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. But since then, a massive restoration effort has been under way, exposing more than eight centuries of Notre Dame’s history. In its long life, the cathedral has been damaged and repaired, re-envisioned and reconstructed, each time laying down a new layer to its story. And some of those layers are hundreds of years apart.
For example, the bells you hear ringing still hang in the two iconic towers of Notre-Dame de Paris.
There are 10 in all, and each one has a name and a story. There’s the lowest bell, Emmanuel, which dates from the 15th century. It was melted down and recast in 1681 by order of Louis XIV.
The other nine bells—including Anne-Geneviève, Marcel, Denis—were installed very recently, in 2013.
When all of them ring together, they create a soundscape that bridges the centuries.
The bells managed to survive the fire in 2019. They rang on the one-year anniversary of the fire and will ring again in the future.
The evolution of this sacred space has become apparent to Tomas during his assignment. He’s been covering the story for more than a year, and it has taken him to the very depths of the cathedral’s past and to its highest heights. Quite literally.
I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
Today on Overheard we’ll hear how a cathedral is being reborn—emerging from the ashes, just as it has done before—and how the legions of people working to restore it face monumental obstacles to bring it back to life, just as they have for centuries.
More after the break.
VAN HOUTRYVE: If you think back in history when they were building this in the 12th century, this thing, this cathedral that they were building, must have seemed so huge for the teeny little village that surrounded it.
BRIGGS: Paris may have been a teeny little village, but in 1163 when construction started, it was one of Europe’s largest cities at the time. Its population was about 40,000 people.
The audacity of this project was immense. I mean, imagine the construction of a building that would take almost 200 years to complete.
VAN HOUTRYVE: That’s the thing that keeps hitting me and that I can’t really get over in the project is, it’s just being like fully conscious of the idea that the people that started building the cathedral knew it wouldn’t be finished in their lifetime. And I can’t really think of projects that we do today where we say we’re going to start this and we’re going to do it for four generations from now or five generations from now.
BRIGGS: When it was finally complete, Notre Dame would be the tallest structure in Paris for more than 700 years—until the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889.
VAN HOUTRYVE: You can see what an amazing feat it remains to this day to build a monument so huge. And it feels like it fits the city now. The city has sort of like grown up to fit Notre Dame.
BRIGGS: The cathedral stands, both culturally and spiritually, at the very heart of the city—and at the heart of France, for that matter. Since 1769, the French have called it point zéro, which means that no matter where you are in France, the road signs to Paris tell you how far you are from Notre Dame.
VAN HOUTRYVE: It’s kind of this like central vortex of French history where so many things have happened: Napoleon crowning himself, or the French revolutionaries coming in and blacking out all the windows and turning it into a temple of reason instead of a church, or the last great reconstruction of it. It’s this place that’s been through the movements of time and history and yet continues, and it continues because people care about it. People add to it. People are inspired by it.
BRIGGS: So when the fire started on the evening of April 15, 2019, the entire country came to a standstill, hoping that this wouldn’t be the end of their beloved icon.
The cathedral was very badly damaged. The iconic spire, added in the 19th century, was destroyed, and fell through to the altar below. Two-thirds of the wooden roof was burned. But the organ was saved. The stained-glass windows were saved—and of course, so were the bells.
As a photographer, Tomas van Houtryve was uniquely qualified to document this rebirth. A Belgian American who lives in Paris, Tomas has always used photography as a way to understand the “big picture,” if you’ll excuse the pun, of what it means to be a part of a place.
VAN HOUTRYVE: It’s so fascinating to be in this culture that in many ways is a hundred and eighty degrees from my own. And such a wonderful way to enter into the culture is through a camera. It’s kind of like a passport to get into situations and a lovely pretext to show your curiosity and share it with people.
BRIGGS: But before Tomas could share his curiosity, he had to go on location. And for that, he’d need access.
VAN HOUTRYVE: Little did I know that the access thing would be one of the most difficult nuts to crack in my entire photographic career. I would say the top two of all time since I’ve been photographing since 1999 are Notre Dame and getting into Pyongyang, North Korea, just to let you know the level of difficulty.
BRIGGS: So when Nat Geo called you up and was like, “Hey, do you want to photograph Notre Dame?” did they mention all of this stuff? Or did you learn it after you said yes?
VAN HOUTRYVE: I knew that the access would be a bit trying, but I didn’t know how trying it would be. And then as far as the safety concerns, I didn’t know what a big deal it would be to go through all of this.
BRIGGS: From a technical point of view, like what’s the most challenging aspect of it all?
VAN HOUTRYVE: The lead poisoning is what makes the work site very challenging. Basically, the roof’s covering was made out of lead and the outer covering of the spire was made out of lead. And so when it melted, basically lead particles just got everywhere, and it’s toxic for people, especially in large doses. And so they set up extremely strict protocols for entering the work site.
I had to take a lead training safety class, basically where you learn about testing your blood levels for lead and toxic exposure levels and the best way to take off and just dispose of your items.
And then the second thing is a lot of the work takes place at heights, basically up high, either on scaffolding or hanging on ropes. You need to take training about wearing a harness and working safely at heights.
But eventually, with persistence, I got in. And it’s just a whole other universe in there. It’s just been magic ever since then.
BRIGGS: Tomas recalls his first experience in the cathedral—after he had seen it from the bell tower in the predawn hours—when he finally saw it from the inside, at ground level.
BRIGGS: When you walked into Notre Dame, what did you see? Paint a picture for me.
VAN HOUTRYVE: Inside, you could look up and see this gaping hole up to the sky with fingers of burnt timber sticking in at the edges, and that is where the spire had fallen through and just left this huge, gaping hole right in the very heart of the cathedral. That is extremely moving the first time you see it, because, you know, if you’ve ever been in one of these old cathedrals, just walking in, your eyes are encouraged by the architects to look upwards. And then it ends at this devastating, horrible kind of mangled mess of fire debris. It’s very emotional the first time you go in there and see this.
BRIGGS: Did that initial shock of seeing the devastation—has it changed over time for you?
VAN HOUTRYVE: It has, because they’re cleaning up little by little. Now when you walk in, what’s shocking is the amount of scaffolding that is in there. There is so much scaffolding, it looks like a space station or something like that.
BRIGGS: I guess in any restoration, there’s, you know, some high degree of—I don’t know—like it’s almost like an archeological dig. What have you witnessed during your time at Notre Dame?
VAN HOUTRYVE: So, yeah. Like the whole way that they’re treating this work site is as if it were one huge archeological dig. It’s like you can’t take one object, even if it’s completely burnt and destroyed, off of the cathedral work site without sort of tagging it, itemizing it, categorizing it. One of the things that struck me as interesting is that the stone carvers in the Middle Ages in order to get paid would sign their own signature or their own mark on the back of the stones, so they would make a certain style stone that had to fit in a certain place.
The side with the mark is generally put inside the wall where you can’t see it. And so you just see the smooth surface of these hand-carved stones. Of course, all these stones have fallen down now, many of them from the vaulted ceilings and arches. And so you can see the back side of these stones.
Well, now the scientists and cultural specialists and historians that are working on it can see, OK, how many workers did we have? How many different stone carvers were [there] then? Do these same signatures show up on other cathedrals in Europe, in Germany and France? And so they are able to reconstruct and peek at information that they didn’t have access to before.
BRIGGS: Oh, wow. There are so many wonderful bits to touch on there. I mean, you’re getting a glimpse of the life’s work of people who for the most part largely go unremembered by history. And if—that they’re able to trace their work throughout Europe, I mean, that’s just astounding.
VAN HOUTRYVE: It’s really amazing.
BRIGGS: Tomas has experienced the cathedral in ways that probably no one in its long history ever intended for it to be experienced: from the air.
BRIGGS: So can you talk to me a little bit about the drones?
VAN HOUTRYVE: So there’s two aspects to that. One is inside the cathedral, especially when I first arrived before all that scaffolding was built. Nobody was allowed to walk under there because they just didn’t know when it could give out. And so it was like, how could you take pictures? And so I requested permission to fly my drone in the nave and fly it next to the nets and the crossing, and I actually got this permission. And of course, I mean, I was really thrilled to do it, but also in the back of your mind, it’s like, OK, I don’t want to be the person that, like, smacks my drone in the wall and like tips off this sort of house of cards. You know what I mean? This very gentle and already damaged cathedral. And so the pressure in the back of my mind was also pretty intense in that sense.
BRIGGS: So how did you overcome that pressure? Like, I totally get it.
VAN HOUTRYVE: Yeah, no. I mean, I’ve just done so much drone flying now—and some of it in difficult conditions—that you just kind of get in the zone.
The images are good, but what’s really moving is the video, because the drone video you’re just floating through the space, you know, kind of like the disembodied camera is just floating where none of us would actually go. Only the drone could go there. So it has a completely unique perspective.
BRIGGS: And it sounds like it would be such a magnificent virtual reality experience.
VAN HOUTRYVE: Oh my gosh, yes. If you could rebuild that in virtual reality? Absolutely.
BRIGGS: Tomas also had the chance to fly his drone above the cathedral, which is an incredible challenge.Yes, it requires technical skills, but the highest hurdle he had to overcome was—you guessed it—access.
VAN HOUTRYVE: Paris is an extremely restricted airspace. You don’t see—besides for hospital use—helicopters really flying over Paris, not like New York, where you have people sometimes commuting or doing tourist flights with helicopters.
But the tricky thing there is to be able to fly a drone in central Paris, you need lots and lots of permission, and sort of amazingly, everything came through and I was able to fly above the cathedral and really look straight down to the damage of the roof. And at the time I did it, they hadn’t closed the hole or covered it yet. It’s now covered with plastic. So if you want to take that picture now from above, you won’t see the hole in the center of the cathedral anymore.
BRIGGS: So you had described earlier what it was like when you first walked in the cathedral and you saw the gaping hole in the ceiling from below. What was it like to see it from above?
VAN HOUTRYVE: Yeah, I remember this specific feeling of giddiness that I had actually when I was flying the drone and just trying to keep it together because it was so amazing for my eyes to be up there and to see this basically, you know? And so my hands were on the little drone controls and I’m like, OK, keep it together. Keep it together here.
But you know, you’re flying past the towers where you have heads of gargoyles popping out. You can sit and ride over the center, the exact place where the spire used to be, and look straight down and even spin the drone gently around, turning. I could feel and see through the control screen that these were going to be good images.
BRIGGS: For Tomas, this assignment has been all about access—from getting into the cathedral itself to flying his drone in impossible spaces. When we come back, we’ll find out how Tomas managed to access the very top of Notre Dame from a slightly different perspective—on ropes.
BRIGGS: You might not think that you’d need climbing skills on assignment in Notre Dame. But for Tomas van Houtryve, it was just another way to access the massive and dangerous space.
VAN HOUTRYVE: So strangely enough, I grew up near Yosemite National Park, and so as a teenager, I got into climbing, and it was definitely my big thing in my late teens and into my 20s. But I never in a million years thought that these skills would be needed in downtown Paris—like you just can’t imagine. And I was really, you know, sort of excited to learn it.
So when I had to go and take this harness-and-working-at-heights safety class, these other people you meet are also climbers. And so like bang! Right away, we’re on the same wavelength.
BRIGGS: What challenges does climbing present as a photographer in the cathedral, with, like, the hazmat suit and bringing all your equipment up?
VAN HOUTRYVE: Yeah, it’s—mostly, it’s mostly the gear.
I have to be set up to document any situation. So sometimes I have multiple lenses with me, or if I’m recording video, maybe I need a microphone with me. And so I’ve got to sort of drape this over myself with all of these carabiners and clips and things like that.
But here you’re really climbing on the ropes and attachments themselves. You’re not pulling yourself up, you know, holding onto a gargoyle’s head or something like that.
BRIGGS: So tell me a little bit more about the connections that you were making.
VAN HOUTRYVE: A lot of people that are just comfortable up high and like working with their body are attracted to this kind of work. So it just happens that on the team are a bunch of climbers. So they do work where the only access is by rope, basically.
BRIGGS: The workers that Tomas is referring to are rather nontraditional. They’re called rope access technicians, or cordistes in French. I mean, everything sounds better en français, n’est-ce pas? These highly trained climbers are helping to carry out the incredibly physical work of restoring the cathedral. And they are doing it on ropes: two, to be exact.
This aspect of the assignment—the climbing—turned out to be a way in for Tomas. By working closely with the other climbers, he was able to access not only parts of the cathedral; he was also able to access a part of the local culture, which can be hard to break through.
VAN HOUTRYVE: It’s like I had my own cliff in the middle of Paris, where I could feel the thrill of heights and the incredible panoramic views that you get when you’re high up on something and hang out with these people that were on the same wavelength that for me, were doing really interesting and highly technical, specialized work.
BRIGGS: One of the climbers Tomas got to know was Kévin Dessons. OK, talk about someone who loves the thrill of heights: Kévin had worked on the Eiffel Tower, nearly one thousand feet in the air, and found it quite peaceful. But Notre Dame was a whole new experience for him.
BRIGGS: So had you ever been to Notre Dame before you started working there?
KÉVIN DESSONS (ROPE ACCESS TECHNICIAN): Oh, never. Yeah.
BRIGGS: So whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re French, and you’ve never been to Notre Dame?
DESSONS: I never, never had a chance to visit Notre Dame.
BRIGGS: Kévin and his team take on every imaginable task in the cathedral: from constructing a temporary roof, to repairing beams, to vacuuming very high places, often while wearing hazmat suits and respirators.
DESSONS: It’s pretty hard. But the first was pretty hard, and after that, it’s OK.
BRIGGS: Both Tomas and Kévin agree that although climbing inside and around a massive building isn’t exactly like being high atop a mountain, there are similarities.
BRIGGS: When you’re high above Paris on the cathedral roof looking down, do you feel at peace?
DESSONS: Yeah, yeah. It’s correct. When you are high, it’s very peaceful. It’s funny, but it’s like my desk, and my desk is pretty, it’s pretty nice. I have a nice view. And yeah, it’s very … a privilege.
BRIGGS: To be one of the workers who—starting, you know, 800-some years ago to now—now you are one of them. What does that feel like, en français?
DESSONS: En français, c’est un privilège de faire partie de cette famille de travailleurs qui ont crée, restauré, et rénové Notre-Dame de Paris.
BRIGGS: Je comprends!
Kévin’s sentiment, “It’s a privilege to be a part of the family of workers who have created, restored, and renovated Notre-Dame de Paris,” is one shared by so many who have dedicated their work to the cathedral. For Tomas van Houtryve, his assignment to cover the restoration takes hundreds of years of hard work by Kévin and countless others into consideration.
But the pressure of living up to eight centuries of creative inspiration can be just as daunting.
VAN HOUTRYVE: I decided to reread Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, which is called The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English, of course. And so after I reread the book, I was like, you know, Hugo, this great literary master, he used it as this great inspiration, and I was like, here I am in this building that inspired him to do great things—like I need to tap into the inspiration too.
BRIGGS: In fact, when Victor Hugo’s masterpiece was published in 1831, it set off a flurry of interest in the cathedral. A massive, 20-year restoration was undertaken in 1844, led by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. This was the restoration that produced the Galerie de Chimères, the new spire, and many of the iconic features that Notre Dame became famous for.
For Tomas, seeing the confluence of all of these elements—both intact and in disrepair—became the push and pull of a journalistic drive to document the restoration and an artistic drive to interpret it.
BRIGGS: So how has Notre Dame inspired you as an artist?
VAN HOUTRYVE: Oh, I mean, it really in many, many ways to think about the flow of history in our space and time, to think about the amount of hopes and fears and ideas that have been projected on this place. But I have to say the strongest inspiration is actually kind of what I described to you when I first walked in the inside, and you’re gazing up and you see the huge hole in the ceiling. I mean, those feelings just go straight through your soul, you know?
And I was also inspired by the very beginnings of photography using a 19th-century wet plate camera. And I dragged it all the way up these stairs inside the north bell tower, and I was able to use that camera. And that also just gave me pause and said, you know, Look at it in a different way. This camera really forces you to slow down. And it also forces you to channel the way photographers used to work and used to see the world. And so that was just another layer that made this assignment meaningful.
So as a photographer, you say, how can I make a picture that somehow transfers or translates or passes on to other people this feeling that’s moving through me right now? How can I work the light and the angles and compositions to get this feeling, you know, out of my heart and into the image, basically?
BRIGGS: So what are you hoping people take away from your work at Notre Dame?
VAN HOUTRYVE: I really think that we should reflect on this place and the role that it’s had through time and culture and history.
It’s kind of one of these few projects on Earth that brings people together to make something that’s more than the sum of its parts, that makes something kind of an incredible human creation. Sometimes we discover them, you know, forgotten in the jungle somewhere: great pyramids or things like that. But this is a place like that with the same kind of amazing collective history that’s still going on and forward.
BRIGGS: Tomas didn’t always feel this way about Notre Dame. As a longtime resident of Paris, he used to avoid it and the upwards of 30,000 tourists that it used to attract each day.
VAN HOUTRYVE: I would see Notre Dame and want to go to it and then say, Oh, there’s just so many people, selling postcards and water bottles and this huge line of people, and just say, Forget it. So this is kind of like a really rare occasion where I can be a witness in a place that a lot of people know and care about, but very few people have access to at the moment.
BRIGGS: The scale of this cathedral, of time, and history, can be hard to fathom. Tomas has become so fully steeped in its many layers that, as he points out, he has become a layer himself.
VAN HOUTRYVE: A hundred years from now, there will be a photographer like me that’s looking out for old photos of the last reconstruction of Notre Dame. Well, maybe my photos will be stumbled upon there, and they’ll have a second life in that sense too.
BRIGGS: The devastating fire of 2019 may have added one more layer to the cathedral’s ongoing evolution, but it won’t be the last one. As so many who have dedicated themselves to this building have learned, they are part of its very long story.
VAN HOUTRYVE: I’m just happy to be part of Notre Dame’s incredible story and trajectory going through history, even if I’m a little part of it.
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You can read more about the restoration of Notre Dame in National Geographic magazine.
Check out Tomas Van Houtryve’s Instagram @tomasvh to see his work—including drone footage of Notre Dame.
All this and more can be found in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Marcy Thompson, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Ilana Strauss.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our senior producer is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.