10 Tips for Photographing All Things Abandoned
24 Aug 2007
I have always seen beauty in decay. After perusing the Entropy theme in Issue 10, I realize that many others share my passion. I have gotten used to weird looks from people asking why I like to photograph "ugly stuff". I live in Banff, Alberta, Canada, in close proximity to several ghost towns, but have photographed this subject as far away as Iceland and Australia. I was drawn to photography as a child because of the adventure of exploring my surroundings to discover things I had never seen or to see every day things differently. Now I combine this child-like curiosity with an interested in history to capture things on their course of breaking down.
Research and explore. Ask friends if they know of possible locations. Approach people who would know your area well, like postal or utility workers. Drive down secondary roads or walk down streets outside of your normal route. The internet and guide books can be a great resource but keep in mind that the more information you can find about a place the more it has been photographed.
Be prepared. Long sleeves, pants, and boots are best for remote sites. Many have broken glass, rusted metal, splintered wood, insect and rodent nests, or at the least, out of control landscaping. Water, toilet paper, sunscreen, and snacks, are all logical things to pack. Bring all the equipment you can comfortably carry. A tripod is helpful in dark buildings.
Bring a friend. They can help if you are nervous about snooping, give you "strength in numbers" should you encounter an unhappy property owner, or they can go for help if you step on anything that gives way beneath you. Be sure to choose a like minded photographer or your shoot may be cut short by a bored companion. Also tell others where you are going and bring a cel phone.
Trespassing? The laws vary but in general "when you are on private property, what you are allowed to do may be limited by the owner of the property, or by someone acting on the owner's behalf, like their security guard. If the property owner puts up signs or tells you not to do something, then disobeying the signs or verbal instructions is trespassing. If you are asked by the owner to leave the property, you must leave immediately, otherwise you are trespassing." (http://ambientlight.ca/laws.shtml) It is unlawful for someone to threaten you, to damage your equipment, or to force you to delete photos. If you can find the owner you can ask for permission before entering a property,.
Shoot digital for flexibility. It is nice to not have to change film and to be able to shoot in RAW format so that you can decide later whether the images are strongest in colour, black and white, or digitally enhanced. Experiment freely.
Step back and get the whole scene. You can create artistic compositions or take a straight documentary approach. The "big picture" will give your close-ups context.
Capture the details. Get in close. Always look for a strong subject or your images will look random and boring. Use things like directional light to improve texture and repeating patterns for interest.
Create abstracts. If there is not a main focal point, for example a wall of peeling paint or rust, compose your image as an abstract to keep your viewer guessing.
Look for personal elements and use them to tell a story. I have photographed homes that still had shredded curtains hanging in the busted out windows, personal letters, books, and journals blowing around inside rooms, and clothing hanging in closets. These things inspire me to create a visual story of the people who used to live there.
Return to the location, if you can, at different times of the day and in different seasons. Create an ongoing photo essay of this place. The house I mentioned was burned to the ground by an arsonist and I was able to capture a whole new perspective when I returned.