Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
Since I started writing about urban exploration, there is one question that I have been asked time and time again… far more often than any other question, in fact. It’s this one:
Where is this???
The question appears in comments on my blog posts. It appears in Facebook chatter, or sent to me in private messages. But here’s the thing – if I haven’t written it already, it probably means I don’t plan on sharing.
This might sound horribly unfriendly. While I’m sure many of my fellow photographers will be able to relate to my motives, other readers might perhaps find it harder to understand where I’m coming from. And that’s fine. That’s what this post is all about – explaining how sharing details can sometimes be the most terribly harmful thing you can do for a location.
The Arguments Against Sharing
I love to share, I really do. When I first got into writing about this subject and putting my photos online, I enjoyed nothing better than writing long emails to my readers… drawing maps for them, providing co-ordinates, or tips on what kind of bribe the security guard would be most likely to appreciate. I would get to hear back from them later, too – comparing photos and trading adventure stories. It was fun!
As I have found over the years however, there are also some pretty good reasons to keep such information to oneself.
Visit any ‘urban exploration’ forum online, try asking for directions to a featured site, and you might not get a polite response. You’ll probably hear arguments such as the following:
1. Keeping a Low Profile: Sharing location details increases the number of visitors to a site, which in turn is likely to be answered with an increased security presence. Eventually, it spoils the fun for everyone.
2. Protecting the Site: Some visitors are less ethical in their interactions than others are – and so greater visibility means a higher chance of places getting trashed and looted.
3. Exploration Purists: Others will point out that the risk of failure only adds to the adventure… meaning it’s better to try, sometimes fail but occasionally succeed, rather than simply tapping an address into your satnav and getting straight to the good stuff.
I can sympathise with all of these arguments.
There is another common motivation however, which people are less likely to tell you. The thing is, a growing number of these photographers earn money by selling prints, books, videos and so on. As a result there’s a large portion of the ‘ruin photography’ community who are loathe to share locations – as to do so would be to surrender a professional advantage.
I know one fine art photographer working primarily with abandoned buildings, who once told me that for every additional image of these locations that appears in circulation, her own work is devalued. As the market becomes saturated, the effect of novelty is lost.
Now, that kind of attitude doesn’t really sit right with me; because none of us – photographers, urban explorers – have any rights over the places we interact with. We do not own them. We merely pass through for the briefest of times and at best we’re able to experience, perhaps in some ways to capture, the essence of a place in just one tiny heartbeat of its ever evolving timeline.
But I get it. Not everyone is doing this for the same reasons… and that is exactly why I’m not prepared to take a gamble on sharing location details with somebody I don’t know.
The Delicate Ethics of Ruin Porn
The more I’ve done this stuff the more I’ve begun to question why I do it. Is my own enjoyment the single most important thing here? Or does the practice of documenting and engaging with dead spaces perhaps have the potential for serving a more significant cultural purpose?
I like to think – I hope – that it’s the latter.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that many of the places I’ve written about are situated in troubled, developing, or less privileged societies. When photographing ruins in South East Asia, or Haiti, or the ‘frozen conflict zones’ of Eastern Europe for example, I believe that photographers have an even greater culpability for their actions; and for the actions that they inspire.
In his book Explore Everything, the spatial geographer Bradley L. Garrett cautions against a kind of voyeurism that could arise from the exploration of ruins in less developed nations. In these places the ruins often retain more integral cultural roles – be it for labour, shelter and accommodation, or perhaps as places of crime – even after reaching a stage of abandonment that would have marked the end of their usefulness in a more progressive, first world nation. In exploring such a site, the explorer must take care that their intrusion does not cross boundaries into cultural insensitivity.
In addressing this problem, sometimes it seems appropriate to correctly name the location in question. As the historian Ian Ference wrote in an essay titled, On ‘Ruin Porn’, the practice of displaying ruin photographs with absent, falsified or misleading contextual information, “exploits the genuine histories of real places, and also exploits the viewer’s sensibilities.”
Similarly, there are some times when I believe a location has to be named. When I wrote about Chernobyl for example, or Ordos, or the vast Millennium Mills building that dominates the London docklands, it would have been ridiculous not to name these hugely significantly, recognisable, and extremely well documented locations.
It’s not just that such places are iconic, though. It is also in recognition of a debt, that it often seems appropriate to fully engage with the history, the character and the legacy of the places being explored. For example, when I photographed an abandoned synagogue in Moldova, half demolished at the time of the Holocaust as the local Jewish population were sent on death marches to concentration camps in Transnistria, I decided it would be inappropriate to keep that location to myself. I owed it to the dead to tell their story in full; regardless of how rare – and thereby, potentially valuable – my photographs might have been if I chose to sell them.
In his article however, Ian Ference was primarily concerned with Detroit – and some of the most famously high-profile ruins on the planet. So what if it’s a post-industrial village in Romania that we’re talking about? Or an abandoned school in the mountains of China?
While Detroit might have suffered a very public death, what about those places that simply don’t want the attention? Or places that are not truly dead – but rather, lost somewhere in the middle of a long and drawn-out process of deindustrialisation? Some people don’t want their stories told; others aren’t ready for it.
In writing about urban exploration, I’m always coming up against this problem; and at some point in the process of every post I write, I have to decide whether or not to actually name the location.
There is no right or wrong answer here. The best I can do is try and work it out as I go along; sometimes I’ll name a location. Sometimes I’ll simply name the country. I’ll always attempt to share the context of my images, and to tell something of the history in order to not dissociate an image from its reality… but there are plenty of occasions where I feel a certain responsibility as a gatekeeper.
I might tell the world about the post-industrial decline in the rural towns of Kosovo, for example, to talk about a trend and illustrate it with images; but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily appropriate for me to put the spotlight on individual settlements. Likewise, when I explored an abandoned mine shaft full of wrecked cars in Wales, I wrote generally about the decline of the Welsh mining trade without actually pointing out the town in question.
There’s a big difference between sharing my photographs, and sharing my maps. When I visit a location, I always do my best to give it a fair representation; to decide how much to show and share, and what is better left out. I won’t always get it right, but I take responsibility for my choices.
I cannot, however, take responsibility for a stranger’s choices. Or for their friends’ choices. Or for their friends’ friends’ choices. And so, if I have decided not to name a location or provide specific access details in the report I’ve written, then you can assume it’s because I don’t believe that information needs to be shared. Or should be shared.
By way of illustration, I’m going to refer you now to a post I wrote for the blog back in 2012… and an example of how sharing location information with just one person, set off a chain reaction with disastrous results for the local community.
The Second Death of the Plastics Factory
There’s a certain factory I know, now largely abandoned, located on the edge of a small town in the Balkan Mountains. From a ruin porn perspective, the place is a beauty; rusted pipes, half-collapsed chimneys, a bomb shelter full of dusty bunk beds and some very climbable old ladders, gantries and conveyor belts.
I posted about it on the blog. As usual, I was vague about the precise location of the site… but when a fellow photographer sent me a friendly request for directions, I couldn’t see the harm in it. I told him how to get there, complete with some tips on getting inside. I’ll call him Dave here although that’s not his real name.
And that was that; or so I thought. It was perhaps a few months later that Dave contacted me again, mentioning that he’d returned to the factory… and this time he’d taken a souvenir. It was a bronze sculpture he’d found in a cluttered office somewhere around the site, an antique marked with communist symbols. Dave took the sculpture home to sit on his mantlepiece.
Satirising the communist rhetoric, he told me, with a grin, that he had ‘liberated’ it.
For me, this news posed a number of different problems. At first I simply felt uncomfortable with what I perceived as an act of theft; but over time, as I thought about it more, I found that there were multiple problems here:
Taking Souvenirs is Bad Because…
1. It Devalues the Exploration Experience for Others
The more you take away from a place, the less interesting it becomes for photographers. From a purely selfish perspective then, the theft of this sculpture devalued my later interactions with the site. Now, no one else could enjoy the discovery of entering a long-disused room and stumbling across such a powerful symbol of the regime that had overseen this facility in life. One explorer had robbed that experience from any subsequent explorers who might go.
2. It Involves Theft of Cultural Wealth from Local Communities
Another problem is that anything you take cannot be taken by someone else. However much you want something, there will always be someone out there who needs it more than you; and particularly when exploring sites in less affluent countries, you might be surprised how much more than you they need it.
But it’s not just the immediate resale value we’re talking about. In this instance, regarding the communist statuette, many of the formerly socialist republics of Eastern Europe are only just waking up to the massive tourism potential associated with the relics of their former regimes. There are Museums of Communism now in Prague, Budapest, Sofia and others – a growing trend that slowly brings foreign money back into the same countries that suffered worst during the Cold War period.
When my friend ‘Dave’ took his souvenir away, it meant one less artefact that could some day appear in a museum in the country where it belonged.
3. It Changes the Nature of Your Interaction for the Worse
This point is perhaps a little more transcendental, but bear with me as I think it’s a point worth making.
You’ll likely have come across the popular mantra, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” I believe the catchphrase was originated by the administration of national parks in the US, or something like that. Anyway, it has been frequently adopted by urban explorers, some of whom will identify these as the core words defining the implicit codes of engagement with abandoned, disused or restricted urban spaces. On the whole, I’d say the message is a good one.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are no rules in this business; as I’ve written elsewhere, there seems very little point trying to assign any set of prescribed codes to govern the behaviours of a diverse and unassociated group of people whose single shared characteristic is a fondness for crossing boundaries without permission. But the whole ‘not stealing stuff’ rule… well, I kinda think that’s pretty important.
I don’t know how many abandoned places I’ve explored, but it’s closer to 1,000 than 100. In all that time, I only ever took one souvenir. It was a newspaper I found in an abandoned apartment inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Not a building on the tour route – the buildings in Pripyat that get photographed by tens of thousands of tourist photographers every year – but one of the off-limits, former residential blocks that stand in Chernobyl Town. It had felt like real exploring; after paying for entry into the zone, following a guide, sticking with the group, finally I’d found a place I wasn’t supposed to be in. This faded newspaper was called the Chernobyl Gazette, and for me it stood as a reminder of that small victory, the experience of actual free range exploration in what is otherwise the ruin photographer’s equivalent of Disneyland.
I’ve never felt good about it, though – that act of theft. I expect I’ll visit Chernobyl again some day, and when I do I plan to take the newspaper back with me.
If you take something from a location that does not belong to you, it is theft. That part is simple. Motivation is another matter, though – I have sympathy for the looters, the gypsies or homeless people, who are motivated to steal materials for the sake of feeding their family. But taking trophies… that just doesn’t sit right with me.
Dave told me he had liberated his sculpture… and you’ll find that other explorers come up with their own ways of justifying trophies, too. At the one extreme there are those photographers who’ll strip a location of its antique contents and list them all on eBay (this happens more often than you might imagine). But in between, there are hundreds of people who consider themselves good, honest, respectful explorers – and yet will often help themselves to books, dolls, old photograph albums, lamp shades, crockery stamped with military insignia, and so on.
They’ll tell you that these things are better with them, than consigned to ruination. Better on their shelf at home, than rotting in a landfill somewhere. But in my opinion, justifications like these are a slippery slope. We’re all human, and human beings are not to be trusted. They’re irrational, self-deceiving creatures that will find a way to justify pretty much anything they do.
There have been plenty of times I wanted to take a souvenir… and felt that I could justify it, too. Like the time I explored an abandoned school, and found a whole set of antique projector slides, beautiful little things, being left to rot. But if I had crossed that threshold, if I had ruled that it was okay to start collecting things, taking them home, then where would it end? How much else would I manage to justify over the years?
For me, urban exploration is almost like virtually reality. You explore different worlds, you immerse yourself completely in a lost place, a closed, anachronistic system, and then at the end you step out and remove your headset. If you manage to take only photos and leave only footprints, then the illusion is perfect – you simply move through the system as a ghost, an observer, a custodian. I find a real sense of purity in that.
The moment you pick up a shiny thing and begin to justify your desire to take it home with you, then you have become something else. You are immediately placing yourself on the same spectrum as the vandals, the graffiti-ers, the looters. And of course you can justify it. So can they. Defending our own actions is easy, it’s instinctive. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.
And, like Dave with the sculpture, you might be completely unaware of how your seemingly justifiable act of theft is actually causing a much larger problem for someone else.
4. The Knock-on Effect is Larger Than You Think
In the case of the Balkan plastic factory, all I did was email one person a set of co-ordinates for an interesting and highly photogenic ruin, which appeared to be so utterly abandoned that one extra photographer visiting could clearly do no harm. At the time, I just couldn’t imagine anything going wrong.
As it happens, I didn’t find the factory myself entirely by chance. I have contacts in that particular town… I know people, those people know other people, and when I first visited the factory it was as the guest of the security guard.
That guard has lost his job now. The theft of items from around the site he was guarding did not go unnoticed… and as a result, a man trying to support his family on a wage equivalent to €250 got fired. If Dave had taken only photographs, and left only footprints – as cliched and twee as that might sound – then this never would have happened.
After the sculpture incident, after I heard about the security guard being out of work, I later ran into a friend of Dave’s elsewhere in the Balkans. I’ll call him Pat. Pat chatted about his plans, and told me he was off to visit an abandoned plastics factory in XXX the following day. He didn’t know if I’d heard of it, but was happy to tell me its exact location anyway.
I stayed in the same hotel as Pat that night, and the following morning the manageress had asked if I knew him. She commented that he seemed an odd fellow, citing his interest in photographing ruins. She gossiped about how he was heading out to visit an abandoned factory in XXX for the day.
Pat seemed to have made his way around the country, sharing the precise location of the site with virtually everyone he spoke to. He had managed to accurately give away location details, even in spite of language barriers.
I had given Dave the information in confidence, and he in turn had given it to people he trusted – but even this way it wasn’t long before it got to someone who simply had no respect for discretion.
Not long after, I came across a mention of that same factory online. It was a Facebook group for urban explorers, where two people I’d never heard of were chatting about the location. One of them was planning a trip to the Balkans; “We’ll stop by the plastic factory in XXX,” he was saying, in a publicly visible thread. Both these strangers had Dave as a mutual friend.
The same explorer-photographers who are ruthlessly careful not to reveal location details for sites in Britain and the west of Europe, are often the most careless when it comes to Eastern Europe.
Either the latter simply doesn’t register as significant to them – who would ever have heard of that middle-of-nowhere town, anyway? – or it serves perhaps to illustrate one of my opening points: that more often than not, this secrecy has more to do with perceived ownership, maintaining control over a site, than it does with any respect towards the actual community that created it.
Dave had taken from the site, and as a result he had damaged the livelihood of locals who had already suffered much in the wake of the factory’s closure; but on top of all that he was sharing this information without care or caution and giving it to others who would do the same.
Ultimately though, I knew it was all my own fault. I told him where it was. I set that ball rolling, and I was responsible for where it went.
Sitting back and watching this godawful chain reaction of cultural insensitivity, a horrible mushroom cloud of Western privilege trampling all over local livelihoods for the sake of some edgy photos and a cool souvenir, I vowed to myself that I would never again be so careless in my handling of location details.
I Don’t Want to Trade Locations, Either
I had an email from an urban explorer in the Netherlands just a few days ago.
“Hi mate, congratulations on your amazing website!” it began, just like these requests always do. He went on to ask for coordinates to a number of different locations I had photographed, pasting my own URLs into the email like some kind of shopping list.
In return he offered a trade, a selection of codenamed sites from around the Netherlands, Belgium and France; “Cooling Tower A,” “Factory P,” “High Security Prison XYZ,” and so on.
There was a time when I would have agreed to this, but now it’s simply impossible. Having spent five years living in Eastern Europe, I’ve grown to look at these matters from the local perspective. An abandoned factory, for example, is not just a ruin; often it is the very symbol of a town’s fate. It stands for jobs lost, a recessive process of deindustrialisation, but also new opportunities – for the metal thieves, the security guards, the deconstruction crews.
It’s neither my place nor privilege to buy or sell that.
Perhaps It’s Inevitable Though…
There is a strong argument in favour of decay; in favour of permitting looting, graffiti, the wilful destruction of locations, and acknowledging it all as part of the process.
In the past, I’ve sometimes used the analogy of a dead animal. Once the corpse begins to decay, legions of minivores descend to take it apart, one bit at a time. Those bits get recycled, and end up fuelling new organisms. It’s quite a nice metaphor for the process that abandoned buildings also go through post closure; and the latter processes, I believe, are just as natural, just as inevitable. It’s just… I don’t want to be a part of them.
I won’t judge looters or graffiti artists, for example, and I certainly won’t try to stop them; but I’ll always attempt to limit my own role to that of observer or custodian.
This All Sounds Pretty Hypocritical
Maybe it does. After all, I’ve changed my personal policy on this numerous times. I used to invite location swaps on my About page. I still occasionally ask other people if they’d mind sharing details.
But I’m only human. This is something I think a lot about, it’s something that I worry about, and I’ve made mistakes in the past that still bother me. I don’t want to make more, I don’t want my hobby to affect anyone negatively, and so my current policy is to keep what I deem to be sensitive information under tight control.
But I Still Really, Really Want to See That Place…
What if, having read and understood all of this, you still need to see that place?
I know the feeling – it’s especially strong when you’re travelling, a long way from home, and you just don’t have time to do the research or to go hunting for entry points on foot day after day. Sometimes you just need to get in, and out, fast.
I had an email like that a couple of weeks ago. It read:
“I know you are not usually inclined to give away locations, but we scoured the whole [area] and couldn’t find it for ourselves. Basically, is there any chance of getting the location?
My initial response was No… but when it turned out we were in the same city, I suggested we met. I got to know them a bit, got a feel for these people and the nature of their interest… then ended up giving them a full tour of the site in person.
TL;DR? Here’s a Summary:
If I haven’t given away location details along with my report, then it’s because I don’t want to share them – so please don’t ask.