Little is more important to photography than the desire to explore. From visiting the wilds of nature to lesser seen city streets, locally or halfway around the world, a love of adventure means you can meet new people, see the unexpected and capture irreplaceable memories.
Canon's spirit of adventure and exploration – and, of course, the use of their cameras to capture said pursuits – has inspired us to meet Andy Kay, a photographer whose work captures abandoned theme parks, ruined mansions and derelict industry.
For around three years, Andy has pursued urban exploration. Perhaps you've seen the videos of daredevils ascending unfinished skyscrapers or shots that capture often dangerous, decaying buildings. As Andy explains to us from his experience, he views the field as based around strong communities which rigorously research and share new locations, visit locations all over the world and support each other in potentially hazardous situations.
Andy compiles his work online, with often-detailed reports on the history and findings on the locations he visits, alongside engrossing images of an array of places worldwide. Whether it's the stripped rooms of once-grand French chateaus, the maze of pipes at a power plant or ruined rollercoasters in an abandoned German theme park, Andy dedicates time to explore these sites in depth and present these lesser-seen areas. We got in touch with Andy to get a sense of the visit, negotiating ethical problems and his dream locations to explore.
When did you start with urban exploration (urbex)?
I've been exploring for around three years now. There are plenty of people in the scene who have been exploring far longer, but I've built up enough experience in that time to build trust from the community and gain the experience needed to find some pretty impressive locations.
Around the time you began, was there as much of a community centred around the pursuit, or has it expanded with the internet? Is there a danger in more people learning about urbex and taking part without considering the risks?
The community has changed a lot in the time I've been exploring. There are numerous groups on Facebook where information is shared and they have really taken off, especially over the last year or so. When I first started it was difficult to talk to anyone about potential locations to visit until you gained the trust of the people in the know. Now, urbex has become a lot less of an underground pastime. In many ways that can be hindrance – too many people visiting places only draws attention to them so they get locked up or vandalised, but at the same time it pushes me and the people I explore with to find new places to explore, and keeps things fresh.
People nowadays seem to be rushing into urbex without considering the risks. We started off small, worked our way up, learnt the laws and the dangers, plus techniques to avoid being spotted as we went along; but the newfound popularity has people visiting places they're not ready for. It's great that people want to see these places but I do feel sometimes they need to slow down a little.
From your experience, would you say there's quite a diverse community? There must be quite a few overlapping interests, like travelling, architecture, and photography?
Everyone gets into urbex for different reasons, and it's usually a mild interest in some related field that attracts people, whether that be architecture, buildings or just a love for exploring! The community is very diverse, but at the same time it takes a specific type of person to take an interest in this hobby – for a start you certainly have to be at least a little bit of a geek! Spending hours staring at maps and researching on the internet isn't everyone's idea of fun, but a love of adventure is another important trait all us explorers share, and that spurs us on to make all that research worthwhile.
You've visited quite a few locations in groups – is the social aspect important? I imagine it'd be intense and dangerous if you mainly went out alone.
I love solo explores now and then – the thrill can be quite intense and the satisfaction you feel afterwards is amazing. But most of the time you need the support of a small group. First and foremost for safety – often the places we visit can be dangerous and a small fall or slip on your own could be disastrous. I explore with a good group and we always have a laugh, and after all who wants to travel around Europe all alone!
How long would the average visit last?
The amount of time we spend at locations varies a lot – we can spend anything from half an hour to a full day at a single location, depending on the size of the place and what else we've got to do that day. If we are making the effort to drive across Europe to visit a location, it's preferable to visit a few other places while over there to make it more worthwhile. Often we'll have a plan of locations and a rough estimate of time required before we go. Sometimes we have to change the plan, due to the nature of urbex nothing is set in stone, so if we were to encounter security we might have to move to the next location. When back in England we are usually much more relaxed with timescales and use that to our advantage, giving us time to find way into previously unexplored locations.
Have there been times when you've just arrived and then had to call it a day?
Oh man! There have been so many times when we have arrived at location and had to move on straight away, you have to take the rough with the smooth in this game! I drove across the country once, arriving at first light at a large factory only to discover they had just finished demolishing the place! You can never be entirely certain with the information you have so anything can happen.
You caught our attention with your Spreepark visit. How was the day for you? What was it like in comparison to other leisure sites?
We visited Spreepark on a nice sunny afternoon, so it turned out to be quite a relaxed experience. We spend so much time indoors that it was nice to get out and enjoy the lovely German weather for a while. I usually carry quite a bit of kit with me- various lenses, tripod and so on, but opted for my camera strapped around my neck with a single lens for that visit. It was great as it made me consider my shots a bit more and use what I had with me to the best of my ability. Spreepark itself was interesting – places like that take on such a peaceful feeling when devoid of people and nature starts to claim back the land.
It is important to you that you post research about locations on your site alongside photos? Perhaps context for people who're just drawn to these ruined spectacles?
I prefer to include a brief history about location, whenever possible, on articles on my website. This can help to set the context for the images, and provides a more comprehensive experience for my visitors. However, it's not always possible to provide history. Sometimes that is because I simply can't find out anything about the place, and I have to resort to my own observations alone, or sometimes I feel it may be in a locations best interest to not include any history if for one reason or another I if wish to not reveal the whereabouts of the location.
Visiting locations that have been left to decay, exactly as they were the day they closed gives a real insight into the lives that were lived there or the work that was done there. Anyone can visit a museum and be shown the past, but to immerse yourself in it and get the raw experience is something else.
Do you have a favourite country to explore? It seems that beyond the UK, Belgium, Germany and France appear quite frequently.
Europe has so much to offer, there is so much diversity in architectural styles throughout the countries. France, Belgium and Germany are all within driving distance from my home in the UK so I visit them on a regular basis. I've also recently completed a tour of Italy which was amazing. My adventures have taken me as far afield as Bulgaria and Ukraine so far, and I'm sure I'll be travelling even further in the future.
Is there an overall favourite type of location to visit?
Industrial locations tend to be my favourite. I'm always amazed by the size and complexity of such places – it's hard to imagine how some of the huge heavy industrial sites could have been designed and built. But while industrial locations are my favourite, it's also nice to see the range of different kinds of places that we visit... the lost fortunes of grand mansions can be equally as interesting.
Your approach to urbex photography appears quite different to a lot of contemporary work, in that it's bright and colourful, while analytical.
There are two main types of photographs from abandoned locations – artistic images and documentary images. Artistic images tend to capture specific elements but often don't show the whole picture, whereas documentary images are often much less appealing to look at but serve the purpose of representing the location well. I have positioned myself somewhere between these two. I try to ensure reports on my website give a good overview of the location, but at the same time I want my images to look attractive.
What issues do you have to grapple with when you explore and document areas where people have worshipped or died?
I always treat the locations we visit with respect for their past. I visited a synagogue in England and the images were featured on a popular Jewish heritage website, and although some were upset to see the synagogue in a state of disrepair, my images were generally well received. I always listen to feedback on my images, and I'm often contacted by people who lived/worked/attended these locations, so I try my upmost to represent the locations in a good light.
What'd be your dream location to explore?
Until recently, I've had a bucket list of places around the world to visit. I've been busy working through that list recently and I've amazed myself at some of the locations I've visited. But there is a whole world out there yet to be explored, Japan being a country I'm currently finding myself interested in. I see some amazing images from over there and I love learning about other cultures and experiencing them for myself. It's rare for me to visit the tourist areas of other countries, witnessing the real culture and traditions throughout the world is fascinating.
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