Urban Exploration: What It Is, and How It Became a Freelancing Niche

Echoes of the past reverberate in the most unexpected of places. Although many people consider museums and libraries to be the surest sources of history, there are others who prefer more adventurous locales. Urban explorers visit abandoned or dilapidated destinations in a quest for knowledge of what once was.

Why this drive for decay?

For some people, urban exploration is an implausible pursuit. Why would people risk their wellbeing to visit these places, when often they’re literally just structural shells punctuated with mold? The urbex community (as urban explorers tend to be collectively known) thrives for a variety of reasons, a few of which include:

  • Picture-perfect settings. Natural light streaming through cracked windows delicately framed by overgrown vines. An ornate archway in a darkened hallway illuminated only by the beam of a flashlight. Furniture frozen in time, will fragments of plaster covering once-cherished mementos.
    • Some photographers prefer locations just as they are, while others bring in props to add to an overall mood. Still others might move original items from one place to another within a location to capture a preferred setting.
    • For intriguing photographic examples of both historical architecture and abandoned places (particularly in Europe) check out Niki Feijen’s Fine Art Photography.
  • Pursuing the paranormal. A location with a fractured past carries whispers from beyond. Shadows dance across empty floors. Orbs flicker against muddied windows.
    • Whether it’s an interest in actually contacting a presence, or getting a chance to witness long ago energy repeat itself, sometimes abandoned locations are considerable conduits for the beyond.
    • Marveling at mysteries. A trunk filled with decades-old clothing that’s still mostly pristine. Dusty picture frames hold generations of smiling people. A crumpled calendar reveals days filled with obligations from long ago.
      • Although property records can sometimes reveal why a location was abandoned, questions often remain as to why so many items get left behind. Common scenarios include no heirs, or those who remain simply don’t want the responsibility.
        • There’s also an element of nostalgia, especially for millennial urban explorers who visit places abandoned in the late ‘80s through the early ‘00s.
      • A penchant for preservation. Crown moldings frame archways and tall walls. Inlaid bookcases reveal stately shelves of solid oak. Staircases wind above and below. Porches hug forgotten farmhouses.
        • Some places are destined for demolishment, while others seem caught between the past and the present, slowly crumbling with time.
          • An important mission for many is to, through media documentation, preserve what remains out of respect for what once was, before it’s forever gone in the future.

How is money made through this medium?

While urban exploration is a hobby for most, there are those who endeavor to make it more of a freelance career. The plausibility of this depends on a myriad of factors, first and foremost is the law. If a place is referred to as being “posted,” that means that only those with permission or legal rights can access that property. This is meant to protect against theft, vandalism, and because of structural hazards.

Some take pictures and videos of abandoned locations and upload them to various platforms such as YouTube in the hopes of attracting a large enough following to monetize their content. If they become an influencer, that could segue into selling merchandise such as t-shirts, mugs, etc. Some take it a step further and structure whole websites around their findings – they write books and welcome donations to continue their travels.

  • Abandoned America is one of the most prolific urbex community resources out there. It’s creator, Matthew Christopher, even offers his photography workshops at abandoned locations in the United States and overseas.

For many urban explorers, success can come at quite a cost (no pun intended). The most remote of seemingly abandoned locations might actually have someone keeping watch over it. If full names of explorers and locations are used in online content, that information too could be reported. Those who didn’t first gain permission to access these private properties have been arrested or summonsed to court for trespassing, and even fined.

Another, just-as-important factor to consider is the safety of it all. Urban exploring is best done in groups or at least in pairs. With soft floors, broken stairs, and treacherous climbs, injuries abound. The potential for contracting bacterial viruses from animal droppings, rusty furnishings, or poor air quality is high. There’s also a concern of coming across people who are actually living illegally in these places. Respirators, solid footwear, and a knowledge of self-defense are important tools.

So, all of this being said, urban exploration as an artform might still have its place in the freelancing world, if done legally and safely. Sure, taking the standard route of compliance might diminish the amount of opportunities available, but it allows more time to thoroughly capture the essence of a place. It opens the door to share a universal truth about the human journey: beauty and meaningfulness is always present in some way, even in desolation.

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