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“take only photographs, leave only footprints” — joe stenson, urban explorer

“take only photographs, leave only footprints” — joe stenson, urban explorer


Joe Stenson is a trained architect and a wedding photographer, but what he loves to photograph most are ruined buildings. It’s not as much of a contradiction as you’d think.

“The style I’ve drilled down to in urban exploration is something I can fully apply to weddings,” he says. “I try to focus on depth and verticals, on subject isolation and light. I look for the same things, the same details and composition: it’s the same concept for both. Except a wedding moves, and smiles, and isn’t full of peeling paint and asbestos.”

The aesthetics that come with peeling paint and asbestos are, for Joe, part of the appeal of taking photographs in abandoned buildings.

“I like to see in through things, and really explain the size and the scale of places. I try to go for perfect compositions, to try and display something right – it’s quite a labour of love, really.”

The pursuit of the right photograph takes Joe out of Leeds and out of Yorkshire to Europe, hunting down the most interesting abandoned places and exchanging possibilities with like minds.

“I’ve got a few friends who do this and we go out together. We’ve been on trips abroad to Spain, Belgium, Germany, France, all over the shop. It’s a companionship thing, we enjoy doing it together.”

The difficulty in exploring abandoned places is that they are, by their nature, abandoned; and if everybody knew where they were, they wouldn’t be abandoned for long. Urban exploring is sometimes like a race against time; against the destructive progress of the elements, and the destruction that follows when buildings are too easily found.

“There’s a little mantra people always state that is: ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’,” says Joe. “On the continent, they often don’t name places; they’ll give them code names and then share the coordinates once they know you do it for the right reasons.”

If you’re truly determined, lacking a name or a location isn’t always a barrier if you see a photo of a place you really want to visit.

“I scour Google Earth and look at information from photos on Flickr, downloading full size images and trying to look at things written on letterheads. One place I found in Belgium was through some Latin text on a stained glass window; I Googled that, worked out the name of the saint it was for, then compared all these colleges and churches in Belgium named for that saint with an external photo.”

Another hard-to-find place inspired one of Joe’s favourite trips.”I’d seen photos of this paper mill somewhere in Europe that was so large it had its own power plant, but I’d never been able to figure out where it was. I spent an inordinate amount of time researching it and then eventually, last October, I finally figured out where it was: right in the middle of the Black Forest.

Power Station Boiler Control Panel, Black Forest, Germany • by Joe Stenson, 2013

Power Station Boiler Control Panel, Black Forest, Germany • by Joe Stenson, 2013

“We had a few places to go along the way so we made it our beeline. Finished work on a Thursday night, took the ferry over, visited a few places in Belgium and drove to Germany to finally see it. We met a friend of mine there, a Swiss-American called John who lives in Cologne; he drives a really old Audi TT everywhere at top speed, so there was our English car and his Swiss car in the middle of Germany, trying not to attract attention while we spent all day taking photos.

“There was an incredibly detailed 1950s control room with bespoke Siemens technology in there – the design of it is just fantastic. The arrangement, the symmetry and the light all came together.

“We pushed the boundaries on that place; we really explored it as much as possible and found places other people hadn’t been into. When they saw the photos they were like, Where the hell’s that? and were inspired to go back.”

Finding places closer to home can be more difficult; Leeds’ compact nature and the fast pace of development makes it difficult to find places that are truly hidden, or that stay around long enough to explore; Joe was lucky enough to get permission to go inside the Yorkshire Post Building in between closure and demolition. Other good places are rooftops – “We get the lift to the top and see if we can get any further than that, and enjoy the view with a couple of beers” – and sometimes buildings that are still partly in use.

“One of the mills I’ve been to a few times in Yorkshire is still partly in use, so during the day you can just walk in, go upstairs and have the run of the place. We did get locked in once which was pretty bad, all the guys downstairs had cleared off for lunch! I took a photo there [of a chair next to a spinning machine] that became quite Tumblr-famous but without any credit, which is nice but a bit annoying. When we went back a year later that chair was still in the same place.”

Stillness is a component of many of Joe’s photographs, especially when he exchanges the giant industrialism of mills and power plants for the intimacy of abandoned homes.

“Often on the continent if a person is in the medical profession they have the house and the business in one, so it doesn’t really leave any potential for resale. That’s one reason they can get left.

Kidney Samples, Abandoned Urology Clinic, Waldeck Frankenberg, Germany • by Joe Stenson, 2012

Kidney Samples, Abandoned Urology Clinic, Waldeck Frankenberg, Germany • by Joe Stenson, 2012

Grotrian-Steinweg 1961 Baby Grand Piano, Abandoned Urology Clinic, Waldeck Frankenberg, Germany • by Joe Stenson, 2012

Grotrian-Steinweg 1961 Baby Grand Piano, Abandoned Urology Clinic, Waldeck Frankenberg, Germany • by Joe Stenson, 2012

“We found a house like that in Germany. It was weird at the time because it was quite horror-moviesque, with shelves of kidney samples in what was a urologist’s clinic; they would have been normal at one time, but because they had been spilled a bit and decayed they were a bit odd.

“It was an opulent house with wardrobes full of clothing and a room full of shoes, tons and tons of medical journals, and a Steinway piano – in good condition that would have been worth €30,000.

“It was one of the few places where I’ve felt a little bit uneasy. There were five of us, just bumbling about this house, but I just got a real sense of uneasiness, especially in the bedroom. It’s not something I’ve ever felt anywhere else, but I just felt extremely odd because of the amount of personal effects that were still around there.”

Uneasiness or thrill-seeking or self-publicity aren’t what motivates Joe; for him urban exploration is about photography, camaraderie and the unknown.

“It’s the discovery, not knowing what’s around the corner. There’s an element of risk in it, but we’ve never had any problems really; we had an encounter with an angry bloke up near Sunderland but we just legged it. People doing the same thing is fine too: hello, bonjour, whatever. There were a few metal thieves at a place in Germany but they knew what we were doing, and we knew what they were doing. And there were people shooting a porn video in one old house: ‘Hi. Weird.’

“There are guys that really push the boundaries, taking selfies on top of high buildings, but they’re mainly Russian mentalists.

“For me it’s about picking up a car with my mates and just trucking it around France and Germany for five days without much sleep. Living off chocolate milk and croissants, visiting infrastructure, and photographing history.”


Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 16