Tips for Photographing in Empty & Abandoned Buildings with Scott Detweiler
Many photographers dream of working on location in incredible places where one might encounter the occasional giraffe or dolphin. A few years ago I was exposed to the dark side of destination shoots when I was invited by my good friend Brett to shoot inside a vast abandoned insane asylum in West Virginia erected before the Civil War. Since then, I’ve had the urge to visit destinations where I am more likely to get tetanus than to see a family of elk.
There is a strange allure to working on location in these abandoned buildings. Part of it is the architecture and history of the building. But to be honest, I’m mostly into it for the spooky factor. At the asylum, my mind was free to ponder the 100,000 souls who died there. It makes one look at the extensive doctor’s lavatory with a different mindset. This massive sink-adorned room is where doctors would start their day, wash up between operations and chat with other physicians about patients. When I walk through the halls of places like this, I let my mind wander to the history. I also think about the architectural workmanship of those who are long dead and forgotten.
In the solitary confinement room, the name of a nurse was carved into the concrete floor. That gave me an odd, ghastly feeling. Perhaps I was feeling what those gizmos adorned with a lot of blinking lights measure on those ghost hunter shows.
Most of the subjects I enjoy shooting fall into two distinct categories: those that complement the place and those that oppose it. Shooting high-fashion and artistic nudes contrasts strangely with the destruction all around the subject, and that dichotomy is interesting to me. The other category embraces the nature of the place, and that is where I get into my arcane mood and work on somewhat disturbing images that evoke an emotion. I am not into gore or blood, but enjoy the more subtle ways of giving those little hairs on the back of the neck a workout. Creating spooky images and seeing the proper response is more natural than some other forms of art where pretentious people come up with all sorts of wild reasons you made an artistic choice. In this case, they just drop their glass of wine and freak out, and you know your mission is accomplished.
I embrace the feeling I get from a specific location. Most of the time, this isn’t going to be a happy one. We might as well call it creepy. As you can probably guess, I love creating images filled with emotion in places like these. Most of mine also include a figure, which might be wearing something that fits the theme, or a beautiful nude. Another common reason for risking entry into these abandoned locations is the sheer wealth of goodies for compositing. I have found unique textures and scenes that just don’t come along frequently, and capturing them adds a unique character to my images.
You’re probably wondering if I believe in ghosts. I don’t, but I have been in many places that should be on any respectable ghost’s list of places to haunt.
Now that you know the reasons I enjoy it, you are probably ready to grab your camera and find some busted house for your next photo session. Before you do that and end up in jail, or worse, let’s talk about some of the things you need to know before you venture forth. Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I am not an expert like some hardcore “urbex” photographers.
Don’t Go Into Basements
There are structural concerns in most of these places, and being on the bottom of the pile doesn’t give you the best odds of survival. Secondly, if there are ne’er-do-wells, wild animals, crazy spiders or exploding fungus, this is where they prefer to live. Bring a sword and a torch or two if you plan to venture down those stairs alone, because I am not coming with you.
The Opposite of the Basement Is the Roof
The roof is often the weakest part of the structure for load bearing. Walking on an old roof is a riskier dice roll than the band of stupid adventurers that went into the basement.
Don’t Go Into Houses
Houses are where people are likely to be living (duh). After the last legal residents have moved on, homeless people often take their place, and they don’t much care for visitors. Unless you are an aspiring crack dealer or have a death wish, just stay out of houses. They also have some of the weakest floors and decay much more quickly than their commercial counterparts.
One of the phrases I have heard uttered is “Breaking and entering is a felony, but trespassing is a misdemeanor.” Now, I am not condoning you enter places illegally, but keep in mind that you are probably breaking a law or two in most cases. Be especially careful at federal properties, like abandoned post offices—entering those places is a felony even if the front door is wide open or even missing.
City Permits and Safety
There are plenty of abandoned buildings you can enter for a small fee and enjoy a day of photography without fear of being hauled away in handcuffs or face a hefty fine. Contact a city’s film and television office and ask about an urban explorer pass or permit. They often have lists of locations and descriptions of the safety of those spots.
Just because you have permission doesn’t mean you are safe from those willing to do you harm and take your camera gear. Use common sense, be aware of your surroundings and don’t go alone.
Wear Proper Clothing
Many of these places are downright dangerous. Wear safety shoes to protect your feet from rusty nails, strategically hidden poo and other scary things you probably should kick before they bite you. Change your shoes after you leave the building. You don’t want to track whatever you stepped in all over anyone’s house or car.
Don’t Do Damage
Even if you are in a place that is filled with graffiti, you are there to explore and document, not to alter the location. Be a ghost. Don’t disturb anything. Every time you move something, you stir up dust that can contain a lot of things you probably don’t want to breathe into your lungs. Consider wearing a mask. Fungal spores, mold and lung-shredding particles of asbestos are often prevalent. Depending on your research of the location, any or all of these safety precautions are things you should consider. As I have said before, use common sense.
Many of the most exciting places are those off the beaten path. Most cities have buildings that might still have their original furnishings and equipment, or be in pristine but aged condition. These are goldmines that are closely guarded secrets among those who discover them. A little research can open a door (literally) that would not otherwise be available. Having a robust portfolio of work can also talk you into locations where they know you will respect their property. That portfolio can get you out of a situation with the law when they can see your work and know you are not the type of person they would want to arrest. Of course, all of this goes out the window if you happen to be in a place where the owner of the property wants to wreck your life and sue you to set an example.
Keep all of these things in mind. Have a plan, do your research and work quickly. The less gear you take with you, the better. Best of luck if you choose to follow this path, worthy adventurer.