All around the world there exists an uninhabited realm parallel to our own, filled with forgotten houses, factories, churches and hospitals. However neglected, these sites exist as uncommon museums of sorts. Abandoned buildings, also known as ‘bandos’, are some of the most interesting material for photographic capture.

There is a special type of photographer who lives to preserve these time capsules through imagery. Known as ‘rurexers’ and ‘urbexers’—rural and urban bando explorers—these daring few risk unstable terrain for the sake of this competitive and niche genre of photography.

Abandonment of a structure can occur for reasons of crisis, but also of indifference. Sometimes it is easier to just leave and let the rest of the world take care of what remains. In the end, we all abandon our lives, leaving our possessions for others to reclaim.

Best Bandos

It could be said that some of the best bandos can be found in the quieter places of the world. The further away from civilization, the better the chances for finding well-preserved and relatively undisturbed bandos. Remote locations are also safer environments for photographers; the chances of walking into a squatter’s residence are practically nil when exploring a bando hundreds of kilometres from the nearest city.

“I have found that some of the best abandonments are in the mountains, far away from the city,” Kira Holtegaard, an experienced bando explorer, shares with INSPADES, “It’s tough to say where the best abandoned places are, because I feel that the location of an abandoned building determines its grandeur.”

For an urbexer, the combination of big cities with poor funding and sprawling suburbs—such as Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and Boston—create the perfect conditions for finding bando gems. Bandos of the domestic sort, are among the most fascinating. Homes turned bando, with all of the trimmings of a family household left perfectly in place: calendars dating back to the 1970s, beds neatly made, a vase of dried flowers on the kitchen table. In some bandos, it appears that the inhabitants left in a hurry, the breakfast dishes still sitting in the sink for who knows how long—all that is known is that they never returned.

With every bando, there is a back-story, but without knowing this story, imagination is quick to oblige. Each bando of unknown origin leaves us only its untold secrets and, often, the haunting question that begs is simple, what happened here?

Bando Etiquette

There are many unspoken rules for bando photographers, one being that the location of a bando is never to be disclosed. If the location of a bando becomes public, it becomes vulnerable to the risks of vandalism.

Furthermore, if you’re going to enter a bando, do so in a way that doesn’t damage the structure. Find a space between the boarded up doorway, or a crack in the wall, to slide through. If you can’t enter a building without disturbing it, then don’t enter it at all.
Another is to only leave footsteps, taking nothing but what the lens can capture in a photograph. The golden rule of an urbexer is to leave the site completely untouched, unchanged. Without official claims to property, bando explorers have become the guardians of these secret, remote settings.

“It is very important to not disturb the environment of these places, such as certain acts of vandalism. To the best of your ability, everything should be left, as is, for the next explorer to enjoy. These places, even though they are abandoned, deserve respect,” Holtegaard imparts.

Treading Lightly on the Treasure Hunt

Taking safety into consideration, another guideline for explorers is to always enter a bando with care and caution. Old floorboards and ceilings have a tendency to rot over time and this can pose a particularly dangerous hazard to a curious explorer. It is never worth jeopardizing your safety in an attempt to get that perfect bando shot.

With fences surrounding many properties and signs forbidding entrance, the daring few combine courage with artistry to deliver their edgy photography. To minimize visibility, parking cars away from the targeted property is key, as well as mindfulness once indoors, as some bandos may contain motion sensor alarms. Shooting alone can be particularly dangerous for an urbexer or rurexer, so adventuring with a company of three to four photographers is a common precaution—though a larger group may draw unwanted attention. It is also important to tell someone where you will be exploring, even when moving in groups.

Finding bandos is just as much of the challenge as shooting them. Holtegaard shares, “I do a lot of research to find the places I go to and it could take me days, weeks or even months to get an exact location. I usually do research with people I have explored with before that I know I can trust. There are times when I will drive around looking, and then there are times when I am driving to a location and find some abandonment along the way.”

An interesting workaround for gaining access to complicated bandos is the use of drones. If a point of entry cannot be found, then a drone can be used to offer a unique perspective of the property without breaking the unspoken rules. Drone pilot and photographer, Bryan Dumas, often ventures out in search of impossible locations with his drone at the ready.

Dumas recounts:
“One day, I headed up to Bannerman’s Castle in the Hudson Valley. The island, located in a narrow passage on the Hudson River has always served strategic importance since the Revolutionary War. Most recently, it served as a military surplus storage facility until some of that surplus exploded and destroyed much of the main structure. I flew my drone from the mainland over the island to capture some up-close views of this fascinating structure.”

A Secretive Society

Although there is an Instagram community of bando explorers, the word ‘community’ is slightly misleading. Bando photographers have somewhat of a secret society. As a highly competitive genre, trust within the group is one of the most valued assets, an earned privilege not to be given casually. In keeping the location of bando sites under wraps, preservation of the settings is more easily maintained, and anyone who leaks site locations or breaks preservation etiquette is not received kindly by the others.

However clandestine, there is a community of elite bando photographers who have earned one another’s confidence to create some of the best bando images to be seen. As shooting in a company is common, a community of urbexers and rurexers does exist in close-knit circles, though an element of competition remains as each artist attempts to capture the best version of a shared location.

For purist bando photographers, shooting an area as it appears naturally is paramount; this means not moving anything or arranging the scene, but photographing the scene as it was found. Oftentimes the bando itself provides all that is necessary for a superb image: the faded patina of peeling paint, the scattered light through antique stained glass—all provide interesting elements with which to capture the imagination.

Yet while purists of the genre remain, more and more bando explorers are moving toward the trend of styling their images, moving objects advantageously, as well as bringing added props to create special effects such as smoke and light painting.

Haunting Atmospheres

The otherworldly element that haunts bando photography is undeniable. The images have a tendency to lend themselves to the dark side, even if unintentionally. Where once a place was inhabited, the removal of a comforting human element invites fear and unease.
Urbexer Corey Smith experienced this eerie sensation when he visited an abandoned prison in Joliet, Illinois. Coincidentally, the jail had served as the set for Smith’s favourite television series Prison Break.

“It was so surreal being in the filming location and seeing all the spots that I remember seeing in the episodes,” Smith describes, “When capturing the images of the cafeteria, gym, and jail cells, it was as if there was still this creepy feeling of life.” With a humorous note, he adds, “Not many people can say they broke into and out of prison!”

Similar to the prison in Joliet, the absence of life and lack of humanity are felt more acutely in bandos. An example of this can be seen in neglected theatres, with hundreds of decaying seats lined with empty, rotting cushions, seeming to await a performance that will never again be delivered from the vacant stage.

The Feel of the Abandoned

Bando photographer Dylan Foglesong has a more personal connection to bandos. Having lost his mother to cancer and being an only child, Foglesong’s life was punctuated with a sense of solitude. “I felt a sense of abandonment after she died,” he shared with INSPADES, “So when I started exploring abandoned places, I was able to make a connection with the space I was in. I feel like I’m a part of the building itself when I’m inside a bando.” One of the most memorable bandos he experienced was a deserted art gallery in pristine condition:

“The entire bando was immaculate, the architecture was something I’d never seen before in my life. Ceilings painted with fresco technique, beautiful furniture and paintings. The entire place had one hundred and ten rooms and I explored every single one of them. It seemed as if this place would never end. I must have spent hours in there. Since my first trip, I’ve returned to it several times just to take in all the amazing architecture that makes up the building.”

Within the stillness of a bando, one can also find peace. While some bando explorers focus on the darker sides of bandos, creating sinister images that emit darkness, Foglesong’s images have a distinct quality of tranquility.

Footprints of the Past

To exist on this planet is to leave traces of our lives and memories; from rural homesteads to industrial architecture, the bando landscape represents an imprint of our history on the earth. Bandos serve as evidence of our existence, a structural testimony, from faded brick factories of the Great Depression to medieval churches.

As renegade treasure seekers, bando explorers play the interesting role of documenting and preserving these gems of history through visual memory. As we move forward into a new chapter of advanced technology and changing architecture, perhaps these images will preserve a unique and nostalgic reference to our past, leaving those who find it to wonder what our secrets were.

Published in INSPADES Magazine, Issue Cinque, June 2017
Read INSPADES Magazine here:

Images featured by:

Kira Holtegaard

Dylan Foglesong

Corey Smith

Bryan Dumas

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