For my Final Major Project I decided to shoot a documentary series of images not only following the people that go to abandoned spaces and why they do so but also to document these unseen spaces as well. Urban Exploration by definition is ‘the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment (Dictionary.com).’ This is what I found fascinating why someone would want to go to a place that is often considered dangerous and ugly. Also the process behind the way they take their photos; the unseen side of the photographs they produce.
Photography is defined as ‘the art or practice of taking and processing photographs,’ and art is defined as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.’ (Dictionary.com) If photography is primarily about beauty then why would photographers seek out a place that is clearly deteriorating and vandalised to produce their work? This is the question I wanted to try and answer at the start of my project and this is what I have achieved through the photographs I have produced as well this editorial piece I have written.
I joined two Urban Explorers to multiple locations across the UK ranging from Royal Airforce Bases to an abandoned gym, to experience whats its like to visit these places as well as find out first hand why they do it. Across each location I found that the photographs produced by the people I accompanied were consistent and each person always looked for a similar thing to shoot. When asked what made one of the people in the group become an urban explorer they responded by saying ‘I like the mystery of these places and not knowing what im going to find, I feel that I can capture what no one has.’ This is a real insight to what an urban explorer thinks.
Finding these places was always a similar process, research was done on the internet to find the location and calls were made to insure the locations hadn’t been knocked down. Further investigation was done by looking at the locations on google maps to try and find entry points, security points, etc. They would then travel to the location by driving there, and then four of five hours was spent shooting and exploring the entirety of the complex.
Even though each place we visited were built in different periods of architecture they all shared remarkably common features and one thing you notice across each place is the silence, the only noticeable sounds were drops of water from leaky roofs or the occasional gust of wind through an open window. The silence kept me alert and gave me the feeling that anything could appear at anytime, the narrow long corridors are the best examples of the feeling that I felt wondering through these spaces. The way these buildings were treated is a real giveaway to their similarities, all were covered in large amounts of graffiti showing clear signs of human life, all were decaying leaving peeling walls and collapsed roofs.
The best place that we discovered was the Royal Air Force Base Upwood near Cambridge the sheer size of this base was its best feature as there was so much to look at and each building was vastly different. Urban Explores look for a signature trait of the place they go to as it separates each location from another and Upwood’s was a pair of tanks that had just been left to decay. The thing that makes Upwood so appealing to urban explores and graffiti artist alike is its shire size, there were around thirty buildings to explore most having multiple floors so there was something for each explorer’s style of shooting.
It was weird to see each persons’ style of shooting, one would look for large open spaces, another would look for long dark corridors. This style really showed in their images, even when shooting exactly the same object clear differences are seen in the images. In my opinion this is because each person defines what they think looks good and this is the way the think when both shooting and editing.
Another Location that was visited was a Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire, the majority of the base was closed off to the public even though it was abandoned, luckily in a separate part of the base was the old residential area. This was the most eerie of all the sites as it looked like a normal village that had been fully abandoned. The majority of this site was long dark corridors with rooms on both sides, most of the site looked like it was a school at some stage as there were remnants of its past everywhere like blackboards and coat hooks.
I had planned to accompany the two urban explorers for the last time to go to an abandoned football stadium in Kettering, we had spent a couple of hours planning how we were we going to enter the complex a week prior and after a while we found a way in. When we arrived on the day and just as we were about to enter the complex we were stopped and searched by the police, after a warning we left. Even after this they agreed to go back the following week, this was not the first time they have seen the police while exploring and this fascinates me as even though they could be facing criminal charges they continue to explore other complexes just to take photos.
Some of the most famous spots that attract Urban Explorers from across the globe include places like Chernobyl, Battleship Island and Centralia these places have become so popular that hey have even created a new type of tourism; dark tourism. “I was curious, I went and stood at the junction and, although it was busy with traffic, there was a poignancy to it. There is something quite powerful about being at a scene where something like that took place.” This is a quote from a journalist who visited the tunnel where princess Diana died, this makes a real connection between both dark tourism and urban exploration, from what I saw the history of a place and knowing what happened there really appeals to urban explorers.
Chernobyl nearest city Pripyat is probably the most famous large scale abandoned complex, after the 1986 chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster the city was abandoned and all 47,500 residence vacated the area, ever since that day the city has been left to rot. Pripyat has several defining features including multiple blocks of flats, a fairground and a swimming pool, to an urban explorer this place has everything and is considered as beautiful by them even though to most people it would be considered it one of the most dangerous places on earth this gives us a real insight into the mindset of an urban explorer.
When it comes to documenting the places by taking photos they act like any other photographer, all images are well composed and not rushed in anyway. Considering that we could have needed to run at any point, often they would have full kit on them including flashes and tripods these were set up and taken down without speed in mind. Photographs are as important to them as visiting the place, and the same care is taken shooting the pictures as discovering the place and exploring it.
Surprisingly the urban exploration scene is different in each country, there’s a group of photographers based in New York and Chicago who rather than explore the abandoned parts of their cities they explore the areas you arent usually able to access. ‘Kostennn’ (Antonio Jaggie) is the most famous of these photographers, he climbs some of New Yorks most famous buildings and takes pictures from the roofs this is the most dangerous type of urban exploration as it can lead to serious criminal charges and injury. This group of American spend months planning shoots and take as much care in shooting their images, these images have been known to sell for thousands and because of this they have made a career out of shooting these places.
Social Media has been a huge contributor to the growth of the urban exploration scene as it has helped urban exploration become a more mainstream type of photography. Blogs like 28 Days Later and Subterrania Britannica have helped to connect urban explorers and made it easier to find different locations and how to enter them, the majority of the sites we visited were found with the help of these blogs, they helped to find ways to gain entry and locate the best places to take photos. Instagram is another site which really helps to not only connect urban explorers but also helps them to get there photography work seen, some urban explorers even get sponsored by clothing companies to wear their clothing in photos.
There are a number of reasons why urban explorers visit these places, but what I have learned by following them is they have a real passion not only for photography but for the history of the places they visit and trying to show the general public that these places exist through tools like social media.