Urban explorer reveals an abandoned world, frozen in time
Have you ever walked past an abandoned house on the side of the road and thought to yourself, what’s in there? And why did the inhabitants leave? It’s a natural curiosity, says Andre Govia, a photographer and urban explorer, but fear of getting in trouble and the unknowns within prevent most people from walking inside. Undeterred, Govia began exploring abandoned buildings in 1999.
The decying buildings and derelict landscapes he encountered were often vandalized, demolished or converted into newer structures. To preserve a record of the unseen history decomposing before him, he brought a camera. Soon, documentation turned to art.
In December, Govia released, “Abandoned Planet,” a book that contains 380 of the thousands of photographs he has taken during his adventures. The book is filled with images of deserted hospitals, hotels, schools, theme parks, mansions, cottages, car graveyards and industrial spaces. In all, the explorer has visited more than 900 locations in about 22 countries.
“I went to Germany 15 times last year, also Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, Austria, America, Sweden and Norway, and we have Iceland coming up and maybe Russia,” Govia told Art Beat.
Every place decays differently, Govia said. North Wales, for example, has a dense, “black” decay. In New Jersey, the decay is “very green.” The Catskills have a “more deep-set decay,” whereas Miami, Spain or Portugal has a “very dusty decay.”
“You can kind of tell where a place is if you know what your decay is,” said Govia. “I rather enjoy it — the different decay and different smells.”
In British mansions, hidden away from society and preserved just as its inhabitants left them 20 or 30 years earlier, Govia might find an unmade bed or a jacket hanging on a doorknob. In Germany and Italy, he saw beautiful paintings decorating ceilings and sculptures in homes and hospitals.
“Even the mental asylums and the crematoriums in Italy have painted ceilings, it’s amazing. You’ll be in an operating theater, and you’ll look up, and it’s got painted ceilings with God knows what on it, cherubs,” Govia said.
Despite the beauty, he is quick to point out the dangers. Thin floor boards, disintegrating roofs, asbestos and rampant nails are just a few to contend with, not to mention the security systems. Govia himself has fallen into a few basements; he’s seen friends land on nails or break their legs and even their necks – and these are the seasoned explorers. Govia remembers watching a security guard walk toward him and fall through the very floor that he just walked over.
“I’m not a photographer who wants to try my luck at taking photos in an abandoned location that looks cool. It’s dangerous, it’s guerrilla, and you have to know the hazards.”
So Govia and his network of urban explorers keep their locations secret. They don’t want unskilled adventure seekers getting hurt and they want to protect the buildings from getting further destroyed. In fact, the explorers have a code — and they adhere to it strictly.
“We don’t damage anything. We don’t break into a building … We never remove items from a building, never deface a building. We’re there to actually capture the glory of the building,” said Govia. “If somebody is found to have removed an item or someone is found to have damaged a property to gain entry, then they are very much frowned upon and often outcast.”
That code is shared different types of urban explorers, whether they climb on rooftops to see far-reaching aerial views from above the city, abseil into the sewers and underground tunnels to experience the often ignored subterranean worlds or, like Govia, explore the overlooked corners on ground level.
The photographer has rules for his art, as well. He will not bring anything in or out of a building, but if a photo needs something, he might move a chair from the hallway or lift some family portraits off the floors to help capture the essence of the room. He uses objects in the space to enhance the feeling of the photograph.
There are very few descriptions in “Abandoned Planet.” Govia doesn’t want to disrupt how the viewer perceives the space – and in the end, he doesn’t think it’s important if you assume a hallway is from a hospital if it’s actually from a hotel or a school.
“I wouldn’t want to taint your vision of what you’re seeing … it’s cinematic photography and it’s trying to put you in the photo so you can almost feel the ambiance within the location.”
Viewers also come to the book for different reasons. Some are those interested in the fantasy-like photography, some are excited by the curiosity of urban exploration, and others are attracted to the historical documentation and access to aspects of life they would never normally see.
“You don’t have to like abandoned buildings to like the photography, and you don’t have to appreciate the photography to like the abandoned buildings.”