Urban Exploration with Roman Robroek
An interview with the urban-obsessed photographer from the Netherlands, Roman Robroek. Roman has spent the past 6 years, exploring and hunting for Europe’s forgotten history in the ruins of abandoned places. He brings Talk Photography along for the ride and shares his techniques and tips for locating, getting into and photographing some of the worlds most unique places.
Roman could you tell us a bit about youself?
“My name is Roman, a 30-year-old urban-obsessed and award-winning photographer, born and raised in the enchanting South of the Netherlands. I shoot unique photos of undisclosed abandoned places. It’s the area of ‘Urban’ Photography. I have a full-time job working as an ICT Service Manager and all of my spare time goes into photography.”
How did you first get started in photography, what got you interested in urban exploration and chasing after abandoned places to photography?
“I’ve always been photographing but on a completely different level. I loved taking my camera on my holidays and capture memories during my trips. About six years ago I became fascinated by an abandoned building I saw online and I started researching it’s history, which got me even more fascinated. During that search, I ran into a community of urban photographers and figured there was a complete and ‘hidden’ world of people sharing the same hobby; photographing abandoned buildings. This community was the start of my journey.”
It’s not a simple thing to do to discover such places especially when they are in other areas, and countries. Most of these buildings are not exactly on the map~ Could you explain the process you take to research these places, and discover them before you can even go or even see the front gate?
“To be completely honest, I don’t do a lot of research anymore nowadays. When I first started I had to find all the places myself. Looking for clues in photos other photographers took, for example, newspapers, calendars or outside shots. With the information I found in photos I started my research on Google and tried to pin down the area. Sometimes I simply used Streetview to find matching windows or doors that I saw on photos.
Nowadays I’m lucky to have a really good and close group of friends and we basically help each other out with locations that we are looking for. We know where we are heading off to and grant each other a nice visit. On rare occasions, I go back to my earliest method.”
What are some of the most challenging places that you’ve gone to, to photograph? Could you tell us a little about those cases?
“In my opinion, there are three factors that can make a location challenging:
1. Getting there, i.e. the quality of the road;
2. Potential guards or a caretaker;
3. Entry point.
I remember a castle that I’ve visited a couple of time a few years ago that was known to have caretakers that regularly checked the place, and a very challenging entry point. After a few attempts (revisits) I finally got in in the middle of the night. Waited till sunrise, started shooting and around 9am the caretakers found out someone was inside. They entered the place and came looking for me and my friends. Checking every room, I could hear them come closer and they finally found us. That was very awkward and scary as well since one of them was rather aggressive.
Another place I visited was an abandoned hospital in Italy where I had to find my way through pitch black tunnels in the ground to a staircase that lead upwards to the actual building I wanted to shoot. I could easily get lost there.”
Have you had some disappointments sometimes when trying to get into a place? (perhaps not being to get in. not finding it.etc)
“Definitely, when a location is closed its closed. It’s often mistaken that to enter an abandoned building you have to break in and force your way into it. You’d be surprised how many of the buildings I visit simply have an open door or window that allows me to enter. I have never forced myself into a place and that sometimes leads to disappointments. That’s part of it.”
When entering in to abandoned buildings we run the risk of getting into trouble. How often (if you do) do you acquire necessary permission to enter the building? How often have you been caught doing this type of work? How do you deal with that, in that case? What typical consequence have you faced? (in those circumstances)
“In all honesty, if I can get permission to enter a building I prefer getting permission. It’s slightly more relaxed shooting a place when there is nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, it’s often quite hard to trace the owner or caretaker to acquire such permission, especially in a country where you don’t understand the language. I have been caught about 10-15 times and never faced any consequences, except for once. I’ve had to pay $2800,- because I had published photos of an abandoned hotel on Flickr I visited 4 years before the claim, without permission of the owner, which also happened to be a lawyer.”
When entering into abandoned, deteriorating places there are certain safety risks. How do you prepare to enter and do the work without getting hurt? Have you had any experiences of things going wrong while on site?
“There is one rule that I always follow; never go alone. You’re often away from civilization or in places where no one expects you to be. If something would happen to you it could take days, weeks or months before you’d be found. I simply never visit an abandoned place without taking a friend with me. Once inside it’s always risky because it’s sometimes hard to tell the quality of the floor you’re walking on. I haven’t had an accident happen to myself before, yet, but I’ve seen friends falling down a wooden floor because it was so badly rotten.”
When doing urban photography there is often an unsaid, and sometimes even said, etiquette of how to work in the space in a proper manner. Could you inform us what your goals are when working in the space, aside from the photography?
“One of the basic principles you get ‘taught’ when you start with this hobby is: leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures. Every urban explorer will say they live up to that principle. But in reality, a lot really don’t. It’s insane how fast an abandoned place gets staged. One day a couch is standing against the left wall and the next day it’ll be moved to the right wall and there’ll be tons of dolls placed on it, or whatever. I find it important to try and capture an image of the moment how I encounter the scene. I try not to move or touch any objects. It has happened before that I accidentally broke something because I stepped on it for example. I have also moved for example a trash bag out of the picture because it either wasn’t there before or didn’t make any sense. What you’ll never see me do is force my entry.”
Many people may not think highly of such a place, perhaps teenagers drinking, or graffiti artists and the like. Why is it necessary to show respect for the place even in it’s current state?
“That’s quite simple; it isn’t yours! You’re probably raised with having respect for someone else’s property. A building isn’t any different. It most likely still belongs to someone, even though it isn’t being lived in. The stuff inside isn’t yours either. Next to that these places often have unique architecture and are packed with history.”
Such places sometimes have some pretty scary back story to them, why they’ve been abandoned, what happened to the people that may have lived there etc., Tales of the area~ Are there any such places that spooked you out in such a way?
“The place that immediately pops into my mind is an abandoned hospital I visited. The staff of the hospital used to experiment with electroshock therapy on the brain to try and cure psychiatric patients. The objects I found inside made me picture what happened there exactly, that certainly spooked me out. Other than that, I can often feel the emotion that’s still hanging in a place. After stepping inside, I simply leave again after a few minutes. It just doesn’t feel good or right and I want to be outside again.
I’ve been to places and been inside rooms where someone has been murdered, committed suicide or died in another way. I don’t like that and when I know that in advance I might decide to not visit this place.”
If you could only pick 3 places, that for you were the most extraordinary places that you’ve photographed. What would they be?
The first one is an abandoned castle in Italy that’s extremely huge. This place has the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. And each room is different. It’s hard to imagine how awesome this place is without seeing it with your own eyes. The surrounding park is immense. Located on top of a hill you have the perfect view of the area.
Another would be the abandoned casino in Romania. It was such an important part of history of the area and I felt so privileged to be allowed access inside to shoot a photo report.
The last one would be the hospital I mentioned earlier. The amount of decay is amazing. The place is packed with history. Objects that were still left inside contributed to the story and the actual part of entering it was unique through the dark tunnel system.”
Say for example, we’re all going to Spain, we’ve heard word of an abandoned place that might be interesting to check out. We need to plan out and go there. Could you share the steps that you would take in planning out the trip, heading to the destination, finding and photographing in the place and then anything that’s involved afterward?
“I’d first collect the coordinates of the place or places that I would like to visit. After that I’d be researching the current state of the building. Is it likely that there is still an entry point? Are there any recent pictures? Is it guarded? Etc. I’d probably check with friends if anyone has been there and can help me with any current information. When the chance is high I’d be able to get in, I’d search for a flight to get there and get a rental car (booked on advance), or if it’s drivable (depending on the time to get there, and if there is anything on the road to visit) simply drive there. I always book my hotels on advance through booking.com and I’d have a schedule ready on which location to visit in what order, what the distance between the locations is and how much time it takes me to travel from one location to another. That’s basically it for the preparation.
Once I get to the place I want to shoot I scout for a fairly safe parking spot, meaning my car doesn’t draw attention to it. Then I’d walk around the place and see if the information to enter I’ve gathered is still accurate and just go for it. I don’t want to take too long to attempt to enter because that draws attention to me anyway, which I don’t want. I want it to look as normal as possible and that I’m supposed to be there.”
What advice would you give to other photographers hoping and trying to get into photographing abandoned buildings?
“Start simple, there must be something abandoned nearby that you can try to see if you like it. As mentioned before, don’t go alone. Take someone with you or at least tell someone where you’re heading off to. Also attempt to research the history of the building that you’re about to photograph. It might bring up some interesting details. Last but not least wear proper shoes (and bring gloves). There’s often a lot of glass or other stuff lying all over the floor that could potentially hurt you.”
This interview appeared in the first issue of Talk Photography Magazine. To check out the entire issue for free on this website simply register a free account, then read the issue on the Current Issue page.
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