Why photography loves urban exploration

Web cartoonist hero XKCD once wrote “Some of my best adventures are built around trying to photograph something.” Certainly with parkour, climbing and urban exploration, we are more than tourists or spectators. The adventure and its representation (i.e., the photograph) are bound up in each other and often exist BECAUSE of each other. This may sound obvious but it’s a useful starting point when exploring how these images function.

Photographs are evidential, meaning that they provide a record of our experiences. They can be badges of honour, achievement or reminders of where (and what) we once were. When we look back at these photographs, our history conveys an understanding of our identity that speaks to us in the present and that we then carry with us into the future.

2013_07_04_berlin_brewery_128_webWith urban exploration photographs, we are creating a lasting, visual story of an adventure into a location that is regarded as off-limits. Unlike buildings that are maintained and occupied on a daily basis, derelict sites wear their history on the surface. Traces of the past are now dangers that must be negotiated: broken glass, rotten floorboards, crumbling walls and rickety fences. Navigating physical risks combines with the intense sensations that arise through being somewhere you should not. It can feel exhilarating, if not euphoric.

This voluntary immersion into danger and illegality, this heightened state of being (aka ‘edgework’), often prompts us to reassess who we are, how we perceive what’s around us and what qualifies as ‘normal’. It can make us question how this experience relates to what happens in our daily lives back in the real world. You could say that, as a result of seeing things differently, we begin to see everything differently.

The camera does more than provide an opportunity to record what we find; it dictates our movements. It’s part of our reason for being there and affects how we perceive what lies before us. What we see is influenced by the continual consideration of what it looks like through the lens and how it can be captured.

A trait of urban exploration is to include another person in the photographs. During two explorations with Frank Sauer, we found ourselves continually pointing our cameras at each other, and later I wondered why this was happening. My feeling is that by including a body in our images, as well as giving a sense of scale, we are reminding ourselves (and others) of the physicality of the encounter.

It gives an increased sense of ‘there-ness’, a reminder that whilst this is a very visual adventure, it is also one that has a powerful physicality to it as well.

My camera is not an automated box remotely navigated through this strange, unfamiliar place; there is a hyper-sensitised body attached to it- one that’s going through this euphoric ‘edgework’ experience – and the images are an expression of this multi-sensory experience. Photographs are a very limited means of conveying the adventure, and this inadequacy creates a tension that informs how the photographs are created and received.


By seeing Frank, by putting him in my photographs and by appearing in his, I am reminded that I am ‘seen’ in this place. In the city, our behaviour is coloured by the knowledge that we are in public and visible to others. Even if there is no-one else around, there is the potential for being seen. Our choices, our conduct, our behaviour are all in some way influenced by the knowledge that we are perceived by others, even if we are not conscious of it or deliberately pushing this knowledge aside. The city is looking back at us and, if it affects our behaviour, it affects who we are. Photographs can remind us of this.

In addition, the photographs are a method of creating a memory of the experience that is outside of our own minds. Like a souvenir, they are a means of revisiting the adventure in the future. This souvenir is still a part of us through the significance and emotion that we invest into it, but it is also separate from us as it doesn’t exist solely in our memories and imaginations. It can be reflected upon and shared with others.

This slight separation – linked to what can be called ‘exteriorisation’ – is present even before the photograph is created; we know that these images will provide moments of self-reflection in the future. As a result, photography is very much a part of how we know ourselves.

In effect, the photographs separate us from the experience but at the same time bring us closer to it. This seemingly contradictory phenomenon is one of the quirks of photography. In viewing a photograph, we look back at a past version of ourselves seeing the world and knowing that a future self will be seeing us. This is a part of how we know ourselves and is one of countless factors that shape who we are – our identity.