Urban Exploration, or "urbex," is the investigation of lesser seen, off limits, or abandoned urban areas. Urban exploring with a camera is as old as the medium itself, but the accessibility of digital cameras has turned what was once the pursuit of solitary adventurers into an increasingly social event online. While the legality, safety, and responsibility of this activity is often the subject of debate, no-one can deny the fascination these photographs hold and their fascinating view of hidden worlds.
In this interview, I catch up with 32 year old travel, wedding and urban photographer James Kerwin to find out why urbex is so popular and share his experiences of the subject.
Hi James. Tell me, how did you get into urban exploration?
I’d been into photography for about 4 years when I spotted some images online of an old mental asylum in the UK. Although it wasn’t my style of photography, I was instantly drawn in and wanted to see more. I researched the hospital, found it and placed it on a map and I still haven’t been – yet!
What do you find most rewarding about urbex; what gives you the greatest kick?
Honestly, the best thing about it sometimes is the peacefulness of it. Once inside a building, there is no noise, no people shopping or shouting; it’s tranquil. So much so that I find myself walking off from other members of my group regularly just to experience this feeling.
Despite living in Norwich in the UK, you’ve travelled around the world to shoot spots of industrial decay; what’s been your favourite place to shoot and why?
The Beelitz Hospital complex in Germany really was something else. It was a fantastic long weekend and the buildings are stunning both inside and out. However the UK, France and Belgium all have some incredible buildings too.
How do you choose your locations, is there a lot of planning beforehand?
Normally my trips are planned to hit a few locations together as it is more cost effective this way. For example, I’m going to Italy at the end of November. The planning with Adam X (a regular exploring partner of mine) went something like this: “Wow Italy looks stunning, do you fancy a quick trip before the year is out?” Adam replied saying, “damn right!” So then it’s a case of researching the locations that we want to see and in my case, making a short-list. With Italy we’re aware of the best-known places already, so we had those locations on a map. However, there weren’t enough there for a trip so we continued with our researching, unearthing more locations. In the end, you have a longer list and then have to prioritise.
Slowing down and taking my time is something that has really helped me.
Once you have your locations, you then need to work out how much daylight you have and plan each day, which enables you to pack as much in as possible. Next it’s hotel locations and transport and that’s all there is to it really.
How do you stay safe?
Staying safe is a priority at all times, it comes with experience really. You know not to step on a rotten floor board, a piece of glass or where and when to wear face masks to protect from things like asbestos. Don't explore alone either, I always explore with a team that looks out for each other.
Is it technically harder shooting in what are often dirty, dark locations?
Yes, it really is! Photography is about a few key elements but the main one is light. The first time I walked in to an old hospital near my home town I was shocked at how dark it was. However, when you think about it, it makes sense, these places are often old and derelict with no light getting in at all. Slowing down and taking my time is something that has really helped me. Again, experience has helped too, you kind of get used to it. If I look back at some of my earlier urbex images they’re terrible when compared to the work I’m doing now. There is one other key factor too: a tripod! Dark places usually mean longer shutter times, so the best quality comes from having the camera sit still and this means using a good quality tripod.
With the growing urbex trend, how do you stay unique?
In every place there’s always the shot, the photograph that most people would look to get if they went to that location. I also look for other shots, but sometimes doing the key shot well and editing it nicely is my way of doing it differently. I’m always looking to learn new processing techniques and to try new lenses as well; I believe both of these things can set you apart in any field of photography. For example, I recently tried the 12-24mm Sigma f/4.5-f/5.6, which is rarely used in photography. Placed on the front of my Canon it was sharp, barely had any distortion and suddenly I could take shots wider than most. A full frame camera with a 12mm lens is wide, very wide!
In the future I’m looking to start a blog about shooting in these locations and my trip experiences. This is another way of trying to keep myself unique, it's not just about your photography these days, it’s also about your brand.
What advice would you give to photographers who want to get into urban exploration?
Try to buck the trend, and don’t fall into the trap of creating over-processed HDRs! But seriously, just because it’s abandoned does not mean the building alone is a good shot; look for a subject as you would with any other photography type. Once you have an interesting subject, then try and make sure you get in foreground and background, it gives the image depth. Detail shots can be lovely too, I rarely do them now as I never have time, but I know some cracking urbex photographers that will only shoot detail (almost macro) images. The key is as long as there’s a subject, the viewer will be drawn in and it will make for a compelling shot.
Finally, I’d also add not to go exploring buildings or structures alone. Carry water and a tripod; make sure you know all of your local laws, you don’t want to get into trouble for trespassing, and be prepared for anything to happen.