“And the sign said anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight
So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, Hey! What gives you the right?”
– Five Man Electrical Band
By Bob Lussier, Photographer
One of my favorite genres of photography is Urban Exploration (Urbex). I love shooting and viewing images of old forgotten places and urban decay.
My corner of the world was built in the 19th century along the Merrimack River in Massachusetts. It was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in America. In its wake it left behind, seemingly, countless old mill buildings that have been struggling for over half a century to find new purpose.
The majority of my Urbex work has centered around these historic treasures, prompting several of my regular readers to ask, “how do you get access?”
I’ve threatened all of the questioners with a blog post on the issue, so I’m thrilled to write this one for Artistic Photo Canvas.
Is it Urbex if you have permission?
In its strictest sense, Urbex evokes images of skulking through the dark, hopping fences and dodging security guards, all in the name of adventure and capturing awesomely gorgeous and gritty images. But that’s breaking and entering and that is illegal. I would NEVER do such a thing (cough, cough).
With all due respect to the 5 Man Electrical Band, trespassing is trespassing. There is risk in ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs. While getting past them legally may not bring out your photographic Indiana Jones, it will certainly lead to a stress-free shoot. It will also help build your reputation and open more doors for you. I mean that in a very literal sense.
My initial foray into the mills lead to additional introductions and additional photo shoots.
Find the owner.
Finding property owners can require a bit of detective work. Leverage your own contacts in town. Chances are you know someone who knows someone who is associated with the property. Contact the local historical society. Is the property for sale? If so, contact the real estate agent. Diligence pays off here.
When you find the owner, just ask. You may be surprised at people’s willingness to allow you to shoot their property.
My buildings, the mills (yes, I consider them mine), were begging to be photographed in HDR. News of the pending demolition of a set of smokestacks and boiler house at the old Wood Mill site in Lawrence, MA prompted me to contact the developer. After a couple of emails and a game of phone tag, I was introduced to the developer’s project manager. He was receptive to my request and helped clear the way.
I can’t stress this enough. Property owners are not likely going to allow just anyone with a camera onto their property.
Leverage your body of work. Include links to your site and portfolio in emails to property owners. Have business cards made up if you don’t have them yet.
Be willing to give back.
I know. As photographers, we’re often told “never give away your work.” But gaining access comes at a price.
After my initial contact with the developer shooting wasn’t immediate. There were some negotiations. Yes. There is always a “what’s in it for me?” aspect.
The project manager told me they had promised the City of Lawrence photographs of the doomed site for the city’s historic record and asked if I would be willing to donate some of my images. He also requested copies for the property owners.
I complied. But I didn’t give away the store. I drafted a very simple usage agreement granting the property owner limited rights to a selection of the images and clearly stated that I retain the copyrights of all images.
In other cases – other buildings, where the owners allow me to shoot, I make a point to provide a print as a token of gratitude. This has ocassionally lead to additional sales.
Be willing to sign your life away.
We live in a litigious society. You can’t buy a hot cup of coffee without being warned that the “content may be hot” so it’s little wonder owners of derelict property go to great lengths to keep people out.
You should be willing to sign a waiver – at least. I’ve gone the extra mile and taken out liability insurance. It protects my equipment, and also shields the owners from any liability if I get hurt. If you are working professionally, you probably already have it. It’s reasonably priced and a really good idea, especially if you are planning to take on any commissioned work.
Will it work?
Of course there are no guarantees, but I believe if you are open about your intent, act professionally, and are willing to give back, doors may open up for you.
A final note.
Just because you get in with the full knowledge and consent of the owners, approach the shoot with the same sense of caution you would if you were shooting in a abandoned mine. Bring a flashlight, watch your step, and be sure that people know where you are and what you are doing.
About these images:
The images in this post were all taken with the consent and cooperation of the building owners, or building management. All images Copyright © Lussier Photography.
About Bob Lussier:
Bob Lussier lives and works in the Boston area with his wife, Jean and their three sons. He spends much of his free time photographing the mills along the Merrimack River and other 18th century buildings. When he’s not skulking around the mills you can find him training for marathons and photographing pretty much anything else that strikes his fancy.