In our on-going series on adrenaline-fuelled movements, photographer David Widart focuses his lens on the world of urban exploration, pairing up with two of the country’s most active explorers – Stefano (1976) and Geoffroy (1983) – to take us on a trip through abandoned factories, decommissioned plants and empty swimming pools. And, in an extended interview with the duo, they talk to us about their passion, wanting only pristine spots and swapping tips with like-minded explorers the way collectors swap Panini stickers.
Can you describe what you do?
We’re explorers. We get into abandoned places and we photograph them. What interests us are the pristine places, those that are preserved. We’ve already explored hundreds of them. But a place filled with tags don’t interest me, I don’t even get my camera out. We’ll struggle for 20 minutes to get in then you discover a place that’s covered in graffiti. I won’t even go in in that case, I’ll just wait for the others outside and smoke a cigarette.
Can you talk to us about your duo?
If we need to climb up a wall to access a spot I’ll generally do it. But when we need to unscrew something to get access to a window that’s generally Stefano that’ll do it. Let’s say that I’m the acrobat and Stefano the technician. When he had his sights set on something he won’t let go until we’re in. In that sense, we complete each other perfectly.
Why do you guys do what you do?
To bring back beautiful images. The adrenaline rush is also something I love and that’s kept me going ever since I was a kid. It gets my heart beating, pounding even. I could have been bungy jumping, it would have been the same thing. I’ve always liked walking around with my camera but I’m not really into taking portraits. When I returned from my first outing at “La Chartreuse” I was really excited. I loved the moment and was satisfied with the result, the images I got, even if they were fantastic. It made me want to repeat the experience. So I kept on going – with the ice-skating ring, the towers of Droixhe – and I haven’t stopped ever since. When you’re in these abandoned places, something happens, it’s an experience in itself. For example you’re in a disused swimming pool and you can picture the families messing about in the water. Or in a castle and you can see the ostentatious periods the occupants at the time lived in. Sometimes the rooms and furniture are intact. In the factories you can imagine the machines still in function and the workers doing their thing. We’re quite lucky in Belgium, which is quoted highly in Europe for its urban exploration potential. We have beautiful, unexplored sites here.
What would you say is the most important aspect of what you do? The prohibitive nature of the act? The photography?
If I had adrenaline only, I’d love that but I’d probably be missing something. Likewise for the photography. If that all there was I’d probably be missing something too. It’s really the combination of both that attracts me to this discipline.
How do you perceive what you do?
Some days I think what I do is cool. Others, I think my passion is just a red-neck thing. You’ve got to keep in mind that, for the most part, urban exploration is made up of 95% losers and 5% of people with an interesting approach.
What does your family think about what you do?
My wife thinks it’s cool that I’m passionate about photography, even if she doesn’t really understand the whole interest around abandoned building. She also worries because she knows the perilous nature of what we do – the climbing, wedging oneself into small passageways and all. It makes my father laugh because he thinks that I’ll end up in prison one day or the other. My mother, on the other hand, doesn’t find it funny at all because she’s scared I might fall when climbing up a wall.
What do you risk if you get caught?
In Belgium, there’s somewhat of a legal void around the practice of urban exploration. We don’t really risk that much: four hours detention and fines of a maximum of 150 euros.
What about the guards that man these abandoned sites?
We’ve already seen guards when out on a mission but they usually don’t see us. I kmow that on really sensitive sites, such as factories or plants, they put young guards on duty that are much more alert and who know how to run. But they’re essentially there for thieves, guys who steal metals, and small-time delinquents that come just to smash stuff and vandalise the place. We’ve already heard rumours of urban explorers getting beaten up by guards but, most 9 times out of 10, if we have the time to explain to them that we’re here to take pictures, things go ok.
What would you say are the rules of conduct you abide by?
We respect the sites we visit and preserve them. We don’t break anything to get in. We don’t steal. Wen we leave each site nothing has moved. We’re careful when we publish a picture. If a location isn’t really known yet, we don’t mention any names or addresses. Thing is, if we publish too much information, we put the place at risk of being vandalised, broken into, tagged up or even burned.
How do you find the spots you want to explore?
We’re always on the lookout, wherever we go. Then Google Earth too, big time. We exchange information with close contacts but it’s kind of similar to hunting for mushrooms – we don’t share our spots with too many people and the really rare ones we keep to ourselves. But that’s normal, it’s the name of the game. But people don’t even seem to realise that they leave loads of clues on the pictures they post. Sometimes, we zoom into a picture to get clues. Everybody shoots in high resolution so the detail is pretty good, you can see through windows and read street signs. Sometimes we even enlarge some details in Photoshop. Some swap details on locations like they swap Panini stickers, especially for international spots. “If you give me two locations in your country I’ll give you two in mine,” kind of thing.
Do you ever meet people when exploring abandoned sites?
It really depends on the accessibility of the site. Those that are hard to get to, you never meet anyone and most of the time they’re being guarded. Those that are better-known and easy to get in to are like Disneyland. You’d be surprised the amount of people you can stumble upon in them: junkies, homeless people, families out on a stroll, photographers, neighbourhood kids, graffiti artists, light painters, people that do airsoft with replica guns. Once, I even met a photographer that was shooting a model in lingerie.
What kind of equipment do you use?
Old house keys we’ve filed because they can be used as master keys for old locks. Telescopic ladders that Stefano modified to get even higher. A cord with a hook that we use as a grapple. All kinds of stuff really.
Can you talk to us about your proudest moments?
Probably an outing with Sébastien Ernest. He’s a guy that really got me into urban exploration. He finds all the spots before anyone else does. We had found a castle that had just been put on the market. The property was guarded by watchmen. It was about seven in the evening. A crazy place, with all the furniture still intact, unmoved and untouched. We found a ladder in the grange which we used to get in via a window on the rooftop, not knowing if an alarm would go off. The kind of exploration you have to photograph really quickly. We did that one like ninja’s, in and out. We probably were the first ones to visit it.