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Like the photojournalist at the frontlines of a war, the nature photographer in the middle of the wilderness or the sports photographer dodging very large football players on the sidelines, some digital photography adventures have a degree of danger. Urban exploration photography is another. Other code words, among its participants, for this unusual activity are UE or urbex.
Urban exploration is journeying into your city’s infrastructure (drains, sewers, etc.), across building rooftops, through construction sites and abandoned properties and other places that are “technically” off-limits. These locations could also be buildings that are in the midst of renovation (a landmark theater) or being re-purposed (an old factory conversion into condos).
What makes urban exploration so interesting to a photographer is that he or she will discover amazing subject matter: the “bones” of a structure that are usually covered; rusted, decaying equipment; unique shapes, patterns and textures; muted colors; dark shadows; and bizarre surroundings for portraits of your friends. These are the kinds of places that are perfect for creating black and white images or abstract, artistic photos in your camera or with photo-editing software.
Urban explorers and photographers are a special breed, so this activity may not suit you. Before you decide to participate, please read and consider the following tips carefully.
The Urbex Creed
Urban explorers have no criminal intent. In fact, many of them study the history of the building or location they plan to visit. They have genuine respect for whatever human endeavors took place there and the people that built, work or lived in those spaces. Urbexers don’t vandalize or destroy property. They are interested in observing how a structure or piece of equipment was made and the history that these places still preserve. The only evidence of their presence is footprints and the digital photos they take.
Urban explorers don’t just research the history of their destinations; they also carefully research the current status of these places and how to access them. As you might imagine, there are a number of Internet resources for the urbex community, such as Urban Exploration Resource. Various forums allow you to learn from experienced urban explorers and some sites have information about specific places. Visit Flickr to see pictures taken by urban exploration photographers. Check your local media, via their Web sites, for announcements about closed factories or facilities they haven’t been explored and photographed.
You should expect many of the locations to be filled with safety hazards, from weak floors to pipes and wires hanging overhead to asbestos to a sudden flash flood in a sewer. Walk through such places cautiously. More importantly, prepare for every contingency. A certain degree of physical fitness and stamina are required. Dress appropriately, including heavy boots, even during the summer. You may even want to acquire a hardhat. Pack a bag with a strong, waterproof flashlight, a first aid kit, water, a few tools, a good length of rope, a cell phone, some energy bars and any other safety gear that comes to mind.
Be aware of the weather forecast. Sewers fill with water quickly. Rotten roofs can collapse after a few inches of rain or snow. If you think an old building may contain asbestos, then outfit yourself with a respirator.