How stealthy photographers get great shots where others fear to tread.
If you enter a structure that's abandoned, not fenced, and not posted with "No Trespassing" signs, you generally can't be issued a trespassing citation. But, "all the best places are the hardest to get into," says Ian Ference, an aficionado of fenced-off asylums.
And trespassing is not to be taken lightly. Get caught with the wrong tools in the wrong place by the wrong guy, and you can end up doing real time. What you might think is a misdemeanor might actually be felony breaking and entering. "The possibility of getting caught is part of the attraction," says Jeremy Harris, a West Coast-based explorer, "but it's also an annoyance."
Or worse. Consider the explorer chased down last fall by men in tan outfits on the grounds of a Church of Scientology bunker complex near San Bernardino, CA. This is an "active" site -- at least partly occupied. They called the police, and "Joe Earthworm" (he requested anonymity) was arrested for trespassing. "I intend to fight it -- they're crazy. The property was not clearly marked," he says.
In fact, a lack of signage won't always shield you. In some states, like Colorado, you can be convicted of trespassing even if there are no warnings. In most states, it won't help if you're caught with weapons or tools that could pick locks or jimmy deadbolts. That boosts the charge to a fourth-degree felony in New Jersey, with jail time of up to 18 months.
Your best protection? A camera. "My camera is a get-out-of-jail-free card," says Phillip Buehler, who rowed a boat out to dilapidated Ellis Island when he was 17 to take pictures -- illegal, of course. Now he's 49, and some of those photos are in Ellis Island's archives, as is his account of exploring the human gateway 30 years ago.
When Buehler is confronted by security guards or police, he becomes "all respect, first and foremost." He uses his camera to show he's no vandal, and tells them he's trying to preserve these places before they disappear. If that doesn't work, he suggests groveling.
Security cameras, motion sensors, proximity alarms -- all in a day's shooting for hardcore photo explorers. Then there are the tommy guns. At Nevada's Nuclear Test Site, north of Las Vegas, "There are guys driving around with machine guns," warns Peter Kuran, a filmmaker who has shot as well as sleuthed from government archives hundreds of photos related to nuclear-bomb tests. "You wouldn't want to trespass out there."
Other ways determined explorers get the shot without getting into trouble:
• After approaching a site on bicycles, they pull the bikes inside behind them.
• If they remove screws to free a board to get inside, they pull the board up behind them and screw it back in when they leave.
• In the desert or backcountry, they always chat up the caretaker about the history of the place, offer refreshment, and politely ask for permission to enter private property.
• In case they get caught, they make sure they've brought along proper identification. "I'd rather carry ID and get a citation than not carry it and get arrested," says California cataphile Dan C.
• And for that golden moment between the security guards' call and the cops' arrival? They wear good running shoes.
Access All Areas: A User's Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration, by Ninjalicious; Infilpress (2005)
Dangerous Places: Health, Safety, and Archeology, edited by David A. Poirier and Kenneth L. Feder; Bergin & Garvey Paperback (2001)
Dead Tech. A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow, by Manfred Hamm; Hennessey & Ingalls (2000) [out of print]
Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom, by Stephen Wilkes; W. W. Norton (2006)
Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality, by Tim Edensor; Berg Publishers (2005)
Invisible Frontier: Exploring the Tunnels, Ruins, and Rooftops of Hidden New York, by L.B. Deyo and David Leibowitz; Three Rivers Press (2003)
Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City (Creating the North American Landscape, by Stanley Greenberg; The Johns Hopkins University Press (1998)
New York Underground: The Anantomy of a City, by Julia Solis; Routledge (2004)
New York's Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, by Christopher Payne; Chronicle Books (2002)
Underworld: Sites of Concealment, by Manfred Sach and Klaus Kemp, photographs by Peter Seidel; Hennessey & Ingalls (1997)
Atomic Journeys, Welcome to Ground Zero, directed by Peter Kuran (Goldhil Home Media, 2000)
Echoes of Forgotten Places: Urban Exploration, Industrial Archaeology and the Aesthetics of Decay, directed by Robert Fantinatto; Scribble Media (2005)
www.clui.org/clui_4_1/shop/select.html [Center for Land Use Interpretation books list]
www.jef.poskanzer.org/photos/archaeology.html [lots of links to other urban exploration sites]