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The beauty of abandonment

Dutch urban explorer Martijn Zegwaard defies fear to chronicle the decay most of us never get to see

There’s a really large part of our urban society that we don’t even know exists. That’s what I want to show my audience.

Bricks and mortar, plaster and flooring, these things will outlive us all. Yet to see such a decrepit evolution of the things we hold most personal — our hearths with the soft, comfortable furnishings that cradle us, the offices where we work, the hospitals where we are cared for — never fails to convey a real sense of what will also become of ourselves once time has finally taken its toll on our corporeal lives.

There’s a really large part of our urban society that we don’t even know exists. That’s what I want to show my audience.

To capture images that are so haunting and outré that they can cut the viewer to the bone, the artist must first face up to the the harrowing spookiness of the setting. When it is done well, the result will conjure up a maze unsettling emotions — the feelings of abandonment that are central to 37-year-old Dutchman Martijn Zegwaard’s work.

Aside from a DSLR camera, “urban exploration” photographers like Martino, as Zegwaard is known to his friends, must also carry minerals the size of the Hague just to get them through the work ahead—especially when they are “hoteling”, or camping out for the night. By doing so they become entwined in the scenes they will capture once the morning light casts its haunting glow.

An urban explorer will typically scope out a condemned brownfield location from the outside, hoping that it will hold a trove of emotions within. Invariably this growing band of photographers will be forced to break in, often evading guards and the authorities. The first job is to look for security cameras and sentry boxes.

The work is dangerous: floorboards that might have been unsafe even when the home, factory or — a personal favourite of Martino’s — hospital was still inhabited will by now have decayed further. And then there is the psychological fear they must face up to (a horror movie fan, Martino is sure to watching the genre before embarking on an expedition).

On one occasion, while hoteling inside a disused Russian military base in East Germany, the sound of slamming doors would continually break through the stillness of the setting throughout the night. “The location was creepy enough, but then we’d hear all these doors in the distance going bang, bang, bang in series of three slams. It didn’t stop. I didn’t really sleep much that night,” he explains.

“It can be terrifying. There are times when we break into a building, take a look around and then it soon becomes clear we just have to leave; that the location is best left alone,” he says, recalling a psychiatric hospital in Berlin. “Oh my god, this does not feel good! We really have to get out of here.”

Equipped with what he believes he has a “special eye for natural decay” with an emphasis on the completely untouched, Martino is scornful of the “so-called explorers” who compose their settings. “That’s not my kind of thing,” he says.

When he is faced with a location where previous visitors have done this, he will change it back to how it was.

Neither does he like vandalised interiors, with swathes of graffiti. “I need it to be natural, how it was left behind. There’s a really large part of our urban society that we don’t even know exists. That’s what I want to show my audience.”

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