Saturday, January 3, 2015

Overcoming Fear In Urban Exploration Photography

"Aren't you afraid?" I've been asked that a number of times since I began exploring and photographing abandoned locations.

I mentioned in yesterday's post How I Got Started In Urban Exploration that I was apprehensive the first time that I visited an abandoned place. I've been nervous or scared a number of times since. There are a lot of things to be afraid of, but fear can be overcome.

No Trespassing - Tehachapi, California
One common fear is that you may be breaking a law and you'll get caught. Often urban exploration involves trespassing. Nobody wants to have the police called on them and especially no one wants to be put in handcuffs.

A good way to overcome this fear is to simply not trespass. There are abandoned sites found on public land if you know where to go. An internet search can help you find some of these places near you.

Or you can ask the property owner for prior permission to visit. I have not done this myself, but I've heard other photographers say that they've had good success. The difficulty is often figuring out who the property owner is and how to reach him or her.

Something that I've decided in my own mind is that owners of abandoned locations don't really care if you trespass, unless they've taken the time and care to place signs or put up fences. If it looks like you are not wanted on the premises then you probably shouldn't trespass. But if no effort has been made to stop trespassers, I figure that whoever owns the place doesn't mind if I'm there.

I think of my own property. If I don't want the neighborhood kids cutting across my yard to get to the park I need to be proactive in some way to stop them from doing it. But if I don't care I'll do nothing to stop it. Either way I've set a precedence, either to allow or not to allow.

I've also figured out in my mind what I'd say if I were caught. I'm here to photograph and nothing else. I hope I've not caused any harm to you by being here. A kind smile and calming words can go a long ways towards diffusing a sticky situation.

Do Not Disturb - Mojave, California
I've been confronted twice while urban exploring.

The first time that I was confronted I was photographing the abandoned military housing at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. The housing is abandoned but the base is still used as an airport (Southern California Logistics Airport). I had traveled almost two hours to get there, and I had just begun photographing the first building when a security patrol pickup truck pulled up. The driver rolled down his window and gruffly said, "Hey, what are you doing?"

I figured that I was done and the trip was wasted. I walked up to the truck and told him that I was photographing the old buildings. I said that I found the place fascinating and that I wanted to document it with my camera. His response? "Well, be careful." Then he drove away.

The second time that I was confronted I was hoping to photograph a small abandoned house near Mojave, California. There are tons of these places sitting in the desert. I found one that looked somewhat interesting so I stopped, got out of my car with my camera in hand and began stepping towards the building.

I heard a booming voice behind me. "You don't belong here! Go away!" I turned and saw a large guy across the street behind his fence. He was waving his arms and was visibly upset with me.

I held up my camera and replied, "I'm just here to take some pictures." He repeated himself and added, "I'll call the cops!"

I didn't know the reason that he was so upset. Did he own the property? Was he asked to look after it? Have vandals caused him problems? Was he doing something illegal there? The reason didn't matter. I wasn't going to argue. I simply got back in my car and left. I found a different abandoned house about a quarter mile away to explore instead.

If you do this long enough you are bound to be confronted by someone. It's not necessarily going to be bad. Just be mentally prepared. Smile and speak kindly. If they'll let you, explain why you are there and what you are doing. And leave if the person seems particularly upset.

Man In The Window - Victorville, California
I get asked all the time if I've encountered homeless or transient folks while urban exploring. I never have. Not once. If and when I do, I plan to be polite and try to not disturb them. They probably want to be left alone, and for my own safety it is probably best to leave them alone.

Abandonment - Victorville, California
This may seem strange, but I've been asked many times if I've ever encountered a haunted house. There are several television shows that are about "ghost hunters" going into abandoned places and seeking the spirits of those departed.

Only once did I ever feel anything strange (supernaturally speaking). It was while I was photographing an abandoned building at the old George Air Force Base. The structure just had an eerie vibe to it. I went through probably 30 or more buildings that day, and that one was the only one that felt weird and the only one that I didn't enter.

When I post-processed the photographs, I found that one of the images of that building (captured from the outside though a window) had some strange floating white "orbs" in it. I couldn't explain it, and I've never had anything like that in my other images.

I would say that if a place feels or seems especially weird, perhaps it is best to photograph it from the outside only. But, the vast majority of abandoned buildings should not be giving off that kind of vibe.

Other Dangers
Broken Hallway - Mojave, California
Abandoned locations are full of all sorts of dangers, including asbestos, mold, feces, venomous insects and snakes, animals, rusty nails, broken glass, uneven footings, dilapidated structures, etc., etc. There is a lot to be fearful about.

This fear is actually good. This fear should drive you to take precautions (dress appropriately, have a cell phone and fist aid kit, etc.) and minimize risks (don't enter that falling-down building). A good photograph is not worth dying for.

There are some places that are safe and there are some places that are not. It should be obvious which ones are which, and those that are not safe you should stay out of. It's the ones that are in the middle (somewhat safe yet somewhat dangerous) that you have to watch out for. Something may seem OK, but there could be a hidden danger that you are unaware of.

If you've taken precautions and you're not taking risks, then you have nothing to fear. You'll be just fine. It's when you don't take precautions and you are taking unnecessary risks that your fear is justified.

So if you are apprehensive about something while exploring, stop for a second and ask yourself if the fear has merit. If it doesn't, keep going. But if it does, take immediate action to become safe.


Fear can be good if it prevents something bad from happening. You have to recognize when fear is helping or hindering you. Is the hazard real or is it just in my mind? If it is real, then the fear served its purpose. If it is not real, then I need to overcome it by not worrying about it.

The bottom line is that you should not let fear prevent you from exploring abandoned locations. Instead, fear should drive you to be prepared and to make smart choices.

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