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“I’m Addicted To Decay”: What It’s Like To Be A Ruin-Porn Photographer

Urban explorer Andre Govia talks to Co.Design about the risks and rewards behind the scenes of his latest book, Abandoned Planet.

Andre Govia describes himself as “addicted to decay.” The U.K.-based urban explorer’s book of photography, Abandoned Planet, is an extensive tribute to that addiction, which has taken Govia and his camera to more than 22 countries over the past 15 years. Govia, who mainly makes his living as a freelance cinematographer for television, elicits a certain ethereal drama from the remains of old manor houses, decrepit prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions, and even indoor swimming complexes far past their prime.

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Govia’s approach to photography is very cinematic–he aims to create an ambiance that will really put the viewer in the scene, using either lighting set-ups that he brings along with him on his explorations, or through post-production alteration. It’s sheer ruin porn. “The curiosity of an abandoned building has a certain allure,” he says. “We wonder what’s going on inside, or what it looks like, or why it’s abandoned. Myself and other explorers just take it that step further, where we take a few risks, gain some entry, and document our findings.”

Risks lie behind every beautiful, ghostly image. Govia ticks off a few of his own misadventures: “I’ve been through several floors, I’ve been cut on several windows, I’ve had arms and legs cut, I’ve had my head bruised numerous times, I’ve had drainpipes fall on me, a roof fall on me,” he says. “That’s the price that you pay and the risk you take for getting into dangerous buildings.” Other hazards he and his fellow explorers (they usually go in pairs for safety reasons) face include stepping on broken glass, jumping out of a window and landing on an errant nail, or running into people with weapons or drugs living in the abandoned buildings, and, of course, being caught by the police.

“We’ve been in a big abandoned hotel in Europe where we got locked in, because they secured the window that was that was open that we climbed in [through]. We were locked inside for five hours,” he says. Another time, he was exploring an abandoned hospital. “The police had arrived to do dog training in the building. We had to resort to hiding in the attic for five or six hours in the summer,” he says, a situation he calls “a bit of a nightmare, but still part of the fun.”


Despite hiding from the law on numerous occasions, he doesn’t call what he does “breaking in.” He says, “the phrase breaking in is a bit harsh. We enter the buildings.” He does concede, “Okay, we are there, we are trespassing, we are breaking certain laws.” But, he argues, “there’s a difference between going and documenting a building and breaking into a building.” (For one thing, they usually enter through an already-open window or just by climbing a fence.)

Govia says his motivation is to preserve a little bit of history before it disappears. “Once they are gone, they are kind of gone forever,” he says of the buildings. Some locations have even been destroyed before his eyes: “We’ve been in a building while it was being demolished in the U.K. We were walking through the hallway–it’s very long–and as we were walking, we suddenly see the claw of a digger starting to cave the corridor in coming toward us,” he says.

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The book largely leaves Govia’s photographs to speak for themselves, with occasional snippets of text giving a bit of context as to whether the image was taken at a sanatorium or men’s prison or a long-abandoned farmhouse. Both in the book and in conversation, Govia is careful not to reveal any of the actual locations of his shoots. He is afraid some photography enthusiasts who are unprepared for the potential dangers of exploring ruins might try to break in themselves or recklessly damage the already decaying buildings.

“We don’t damage, and I think the the perception of the urban explorer can sometimes be taken out of context, where we are kind of tarnished with the same brush as vandals,” he says. “We are not. We are people who document abandoned buildings.” And occasionally fall through the floorboards.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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