Urban Photographer Snaps Up the Beauty in Decay

“Urban-obsessed and award winning” photographer Roman Robroek‘s work could be said to take the ‘wine + cheese’ approach to beauty: things only get better with age. Palpably so, in his photography series that explores architectural sites in a dangerous – and dangerously beautiful – state of disrepair.


Roman’s been interested in photography for 6 years now, but a long-standing passion for general history and research into closed-off historical buildings set him on the path to urban photography. That, along with the help of a local abandoned-building photographers’ forum, part of a larger community that gathers and protects the best abandoned buildings from prying eyes and red tape.

Roman started sleuthing good locations from newspaper research and by following the clues left in pictures from other urban photographers. But now he’s been admitted to the protective inner circle of urban explorers and architecture enthusiasts guarding the location of these stunning buildings against the damage touristic footfall could cause. “In all honesty, it’s a matter of friendship,” Roman says of the tight-knit circle of online aesthetes. Roman’s happy to share the rewards, though, and has a keen eye for presenting these spaces at their best – an interesting angle on architecture that won him an exhibition at Clerkenwell Design Week.


There’s a unique kind of therapy, too, offered by architecture in a state of dangerous disrepair: the risk involved “makes me forget about all the things in my daily life, and makes sure that I focus on that specific moment. It’s a way to relax and reload,” Roman tells us. Kick back with us, and take a look at his striking and therapeutic work.

THE PLUS: Why urban photography?
Roman Robroek:
Abandoned buildings are often located in desolate locations, in complete silence. When I visit a place like this I pay a lot of attention to my surroundings: listening to every sound, watching every movement. All this because I’m usually not allowed to be inside these buildings, and I don’t want to get caught.


TP: You mention a fascination with the stories hidden in abandoned buildings – how much research do you do into the history of the sites?
The research aspect of my passion often takes more time than the actual photography. History isn’t always easy to find, and it’s mostly in different languages (depending on the country the building is in). When I find the history, I write a short story or, depending on the size of my photo report, a blog about it.


TP: How careful do you have to be when exploring on a shoot? Have you had any close shaves?
Abandoned buildings are rarely maintained, and no one expects you to go inside them. The interior is damaged, rotten, and possibly mouldy. Last year I visited an abandoned church in Italy, and there were a lot of wooden bars lying on the ground. I stepped on one of them with a big rusty nail in it that went into my shoe. Luckily enough it didn’t go into my foot, but that could have gone wrong.


TP: Much of the urban exploration community keep to a similar code of non-disclosure; does it seem a shame that these spaces have to be ‘protected’ in this way?
It sure does, but it’s necessary. Vandals, thieves, and graffiti artist are on the hunt for these spaces as well. I don’t understand why someone would want to spray their name on an abandoned building, but, on the other hand, they probably don’t understand why I want to shoot that old ‘crap’.


TP: Any tips for urban exploration?
Don’t go alone, and if you do, let someone know where and when you’ll be there. Protect yourself from possible damage by for example wearing proper shoes. Take a flashlight for dark spaces.


TP: Do you use any special equipment you’d recommend for urban photography?
All photos have been shot with the Canon EOS 650d and mostly with a wide-angle lens. That’s one of the things that I’d highly recommend, since many spaces have very small rooms and a wide-angle lens is able to capture most of that.


TP: Any in-use building you’ve seen around that you can’t wait to become abandoned (and then photograph)?
The Residence museum in Munchen would be a great start! I’m so impressed by the architecture and the details in that buildings, it’s amazing. I can easily picture it in a lot of decay, that would look even better!


TP: Could most buildings be improved with a bit of an ‘antique’ aesthetic?
I’d prefer to see beautiful buildings like these in use. It makes me very happy when an abandoned building that I have shot gets renovated and used again.