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An Introduction to Urban Exploration

A Guest post by Neil Ta.

Urban exploration is the act of accessing locations that are typically restricted to the general public.  It’s also known as UE or urbex in some circles, but is often mistaken as simply the discovery of “urban decay” or “abandonment” properties. However, the broader definition also includes the exploration of rooftops, drains, sewers, construction sites, or any other location that may have restricted access. 

Urban exploration and photography are mutually exclusive activities, though most explorers have cameras on hand to capture their adventures.  I’ve been fascinated by this form of photography over the last year and have learned a great deal about this art form from a number of far more experienced people in the urbex community.  To become an urban explorer is easier than you might think, but I caution, it isn’t for everybody.

Image: There Will Be a Light

There Will Be a Light

Who We Are

Explorers are not criminals.  We have a great deal of respect for each location we visit, often doing a great deal of research on the historical significance and role the location once played in the community.  We don’t spray paint graffiti, we don’t steal, and we don’t break down doors, or smash through windows to gain entry.  We’re there to take pictures.  We “take only pictures and leave only footprints”.

Image: Man in the Middle

Man in the Middle

Research

The first question a beginner getting into UE will have is inevitably: “how did you get in there?”  Well, there’s a number of online forums relating to urban exploration that can help you answer that and more; the main one being Urban Exploration Resource.  This is a good starting point if you want to get a feel of what it’s all about.  It will allow you to browse through the beginner’s forum, organize or meet up with explorers in your area, and to research some locations.  Your area may also have its own local websites relating to urban exploration too. 

Flickr is another good resource for researching potential urbex locations.  If you type in a search for your city followed by “urban exploration”, “urban decay”, or “urbex” as keywords, you’re bound to find some recent images from locations in your area.  Newspapers can also offer hints on locations being demolished, renovated, or preserved.

Image: Go for a Swim

Go for a Swim

Safety

Every location will have some sort of hazard, be it unsafe flooring, fall risks, flash flooding risks, asbestos, or even irate squatters.  It is up to you to do the research and prepare yourself for every possible situation.  For example, if there’s rain in the forecast, DO NOT venture into any drains; if there’s asbestos in an old building, wear a respirator that filters it.  Generally, be smart and take all the precautions you need to be safe.  That is priority #1. Never explore on your own.  Ever.

Also know what to bring in addition to your camera gear! Water, first aid kit, flashlight, and other safety equipment are just a short list of items you may want to carry with you.

Image: Pho, Phishfish, and Phun

Pho, Phishfish, and Phun

Learn

The best way to learn about urbex is to make friends with others who share the same interest.  You can organize local meets through a number of online forums and photography websites, and once you meet a core group of explorers, you’re pretty much set! Be open to what they have to say and soak in as much information as you can. Most of them are very willing to share their experiences and to pay it forward to the next generation of explorers. 

Image: The Horror

The Horror

Legal Risks

Urbex is not without some potential legal drawbacks.  Depending on the location you are trying to access, urbex may be considered illegal activity (trespassing or mischief).  Know the legalities of what you’re doing and always prepare for a worse case scenario.  Many times abandoned locations are patrolled by third party security companies or even local police.  Though arrests are rare (fines are more likely), it is still best to know all of the potential risks involved.  If you are exploring with only good intentions (we’re just taking photos!), many times they will simply ask you to leave the premises.  There may also be legal implications after you’ve shared your pictures online, so it is wise to look into all angles of this activity as well.

Image: This is the Shot

This is the Shot

Exercise Patience

When you first get involved with UE, you are filled with excitement! You’ll likely want to tear down the doors and go bonkers with your camera! The reality is far less glamorous. You will need to exercise great patience and show restraint once you’re on site. You will need to wait for the perfect time to access the area, which can take a number of hours in some instances. Just be aware that it takes a lot of patience to get these stunning images!

Image: How to Light a Chapel

How to Light a Chapel

Have Fun!

In the end, all of the extra risks and precautions you take will be worth it. Urban exploration allows you to see and experience locations very few people ever have. It gives you a greater appreciation of the local history, and you feel an increased affinity with each location and its surrounding community. I’ve been lucky enough to escape all of my adventures with stunning sets of photographs and many memorable moments. Urban exploration has introduced me to a number of great people and amazingly talented photographers. It has truly transformed my lifestyle and the way I see my city.

Image: Fresh Prince of Linseed

Fresh Prince of Linseed

Neil Ta is a Toronto based Photographer, Urban Explorer, Traveler, and Gentle Lover. See more from him on his website and blog.

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