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'Urban Explorers' Quest To Discover Abandoned Haunts That Conjure Hidden Past

Fueled by Internet forums and photo-sharing, so-called “urban explorers” track down decaying houses and boarded-up factories to capture the way things were in an ever more remote past.

An abandoned school in Germany (Floksor).
An abandoned school in Germany (Floksor).
Caroline Steva

For them, it's like going fishing or catching a movie on a Sunday afternoon. This escape, though, takes them to explore the cities and the countryside in search of abandoned locations to enter: closed-down factories, abandoned hospitals, empty houses.

They snap pictures, which they often post online, and helps explain how the practice has multiplied over the past few years through forums and social networks. They've been dubbed "urban explorers," even though they often run through country fields in search of new boarded-up finds.

To discover new treasures out in the territory, these archeologists-photographers follow the news, search municipal archives, talk with the elderly or just look around closely. Then they exchange tips. They mainly find factories and workshops, but they can also come upon hotels, theaters, zoos, prisons, asylums, museums under construction, sewerage systems -- and sometimes entire towns.

"The most moving part is the discovery of a new place," says Sylvain Margaine, project manager for Brussels public transportation services. "I'd dreamed of visiting the former veterinary school of Brussels for a very long time, but it was impenetrable. Until the day renovation work started."

Margaine recalls: "I jumped into the building through a basement window and I ended up in a pitch-dark small room. When I turned on my flashlight, I saw the shelves full of animals in formalin jars. I was certainly the first person to come back there since the building had been closed, it was fascinating."

Gregory Michel, a 30-year-old from Alsace employed in Basel, notes that the weekend explorers are, in fact, rarely the first ones to come. "Almost every time, someone already came before us, copper thieves or squatters."

Adventure, discovery, history, cultural heritage -- the motives of these explorers are numerous. "I like the idea of going where no one goes. Each building has its own soul, it bears marks that can tell you stories. I observe and I let my imagination work," explains Henk van Rensbergen, a 43-year-old Flemish airline pilot.

Van Rensbergen is considered a pioneer of the discipline, having taken advantage of each of his work stopovers to look for new places, often recommended by other enthusiasts he met on the Internet. "The best places are obviously the rich countries, where they have enough space to leave an old building fallen in ruins, and build other ones next to it."

The United States, Canada, France, Italy, Germany make up his Top Five. And each region has its peculiarities, memories of bygone days. Mines and steel factories in northeastern Europe, huge lunatic asylums in North America that show the number of inmates and the mistreatment they suffered. In Switzerland, explorations take place in the underground network of Basel, old hotels or Ticinese sanatoriums

Some do extensive research before they go to a new place, others do it afterwards, a few don't do any outside reading at all. "Thanks to the objects that are still there and the anecdotes we read or heard, we manage to imagine the building when it was inhabited, to perceive the activity that was going on inside at the time," says Gregory Michel.

Inheritance problems

"Sometimes the paintings are still on the walls and the crockery inside the cupboards, as if the people had left overnight. I think it's moving, I wonder what happened, and I start doing some research," says Sylvain Margaine. "It's often the same story: inheritance problems."

Julien Michaud, a computer analyst from the French city of Strasbourg, discovered one of these long abandoned houses. "Everything was still there, the piano, the letters, the darkroom where the grandfather, who was a photographer, developed his pictures…The granddaughter left with the inheritance. People say the family owns another house in the South. I've been looking for it in vain…"

As usual, Michaud published his photos of the house on the Web, though he did not give the address. But illegal visits started multiplying, objects disappeared, graffiti has covered the walls, and now the piano is being dismantled. "Now I got it, I keep some places for myself," he says with regret. "I shared a lot in the beginning to enter the circle, to prove my mettle. I don't do it anymore." Many urban explorers wait for the building to be destroyed to talk about it publicly.

There is in fact a certain ethical code amongst the veterans: never break in, never leave any trace of your visit, take nothing but pictures. "The places must be protected like fragile pieces of nature," specifies the website abandoned-place.com. The doors are never broken open, the windows are never smashed – maybe there's a hole or a basement window, or you'll need a ladder or rope, but there is always a soft way in.

To enter discreetly and also to limit the risks, the equipment is an important element. Visitors - mainly men - need at least a good pair of shoes, gloves, two electric torches, food and water. Depending on the circumstances, they can also bring waders, a knife, a helmet or even a gas mask.

Taking precautions is even more important as urban exploration is victim of its own success. A documentary on the French Channel France 2 in early July led to a real saturation of the forums. The pleasure of the discovery then becomes more and more rare. "The challenge now resides in the pictures you take, I try to capture the atmosphere of the premises, to take better photos than the ones I saw on the Web," says Henk van Rensbergen. "I started taking pictures to prove to my friends that I had been there and to show them how it was. Now my approach is more aesthetical." A mix, it seems, of Indiana Jones and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Floksor

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