Photographer Breaks Into Schools, Takes Poetic Pics Of Empty Playgrounds

The photographs here, by Australian-born Ward Roberts, shouldn’t be as mesmerizing as they are. They’re pictures of empty playgrounds, for chrissake. How exciting can that be?

Pretty exciting, actually. First, there’s his method for getting the photos: He breaks into schools. Mostly, he’s stealth about it and doesn’t get caught. But sometimes he does:

I found a university in Hong Kong that had amazing surrounding buildings and a rooftop, which, from previous experience, normally features a court. I entered the university and was immediately told by the security guard that I had to stay on ground level. Ignoring this warning I headed straight up to the roof. When I reached the roof I noticed a suitable tennis court next door on top of a sports club. I headed back down and was caught by the same security guard to which he shouted ‘pok gai jai!’ (street-tripping bastard).

Then, there are the photographs themselves—crisp, bleached-out landscapes of tennis and basketball courts framed by sherbet-colored highrises and an occasional glimpse of sky. He uses a Hasselblad 503CW, and likes to shoot when it’s overcast, especially during the winter in Hong Kong (where he lived for several years) because of "its hazy skies."

The framing is key. Some of his photos are so tightly cropped, they resemble abstract paintings, like this lovely shot of a wet basketball court:

Others give you more breathing room.

But he still excises important details—tops of towers, the entire second half of a tennis court—that typically make for a "complete" composition, as if freeing viewers to fill in the rest with their own memories and experiences. Maybe that explains the aching sense of nostalgia these evoke. This shot makes me think of my childhood in suburban California, even though I didn’t grow up in a tower, rarely saw palm trees, and never, ever played basketball:

As it happens, the series was inspired by Roberts’s own nostalgia. "When I was younger I’d often spend a lot of time playing tennis, soccer, and basketball with friends," he says. "We’d break into schools on the weekend just to play sport(s). I was curious to find out if this is still a popular activity."

To judge by the total absence of people in his pictures, I’m going to guess no. But don’t be surprised if, after scanning the slide show above, you are struck by a sudden urge to trespass into a school, sashay onto one of its basketball courts, and play like you’re 14 years old again.

[Images courtesy of Ward Roberts]

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  • Caleb Lai

    First time to go one this site and see this entry. ok,  currently I'm living in Canada, the first picture of the Uni in HK was my old design school where i finish my diploma and the last picture showing the basketball court was just right next to my high school. I just get to leave a comment on here coz I feel so related :P love this blog and keep on the good works :)

  • Geust

    Really annoying that all the photos are not aligned by just a tad, if the artist would literally take 2 seconds to rotate them 1 degree it would be a more enjoyable experience.

    Either shoot straight or don't but do so with confidence

  • guest

    The first pic is a soccer pitch - the basketball courts are juuuust visible at the top to the image.

  • cia

    Isn't it also difficult to take photographs of schools and playground when you're male and alone?

  • Joel Blair

    Beautiful work. When I was in Seoul several years ago I was enamored with the same sort of cityscapes. Considering the long hours many asian students put into their studies, these playgrounds are usually empty.

  • Kevin Hellriegel

    Thanks for showing these images.  I enjoyed hearing how Ward Roberts used a Hasselblad for the images.  I switched to digital a few years back but I still have my Hasselblad equipment and these images make me want to dust off the old equipment and use it again!  And with all of the overcast skies here in Seattle, I'm sure I'd get the same kind of feel.  Again, thanks for taking the time to write and post these images.


    Kevin Hellriegel