Snaps Interview

by • February 11, 2011 • Blog, Interviews, Other

Snaps61 Snaps Interview

I came across this guy, who goes by the name ‘Snaps’, through a BMX related forum a few years ago, and have been really inspired ever since by the photos he shoots. I’ve watched his escapades get more and more unbelievable, whether it be squeezing past skeletons in the catacombs of Paris, climbing mountains or gazing over New York perched atop bridges hundreds of feet above the ground. If you thought this whole ‘urban exploration’ thing was just kids smashing windows in abandoned hospitals, think again. While he may be humble about what he does, I find his drive, dedication and unwillingness to settle into the 9-5 mentality incredibly inspiring. I caught up with him to find out what motivates him, see whats up with his website, Adventure Two, and get some stories from the man behind the photos. Sit back and prepare yourself, he certainly didn’t answer these questions half-heartedly! Click any of the pictures to find out about the escapade behind it.

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Easy snaps, firstly, let’s learn a bit about the person behind the photos, how do you spend your days when you’re not climbing mountains and wading through sewage?
Difficult question! The occasional film, books, walking, and spending time with friends. Usually a decent pint and food is good enough for me – I’m not really into loud, late, drunken nights, although I have my moments. My work keeps me relatively entertained and is based around problem-solving, which keeps that aspect of my nature happy, and I’m not tied to an office chair buried under six levels of middle management. You should see the state of the car though, it’s my second home.

And a personal favourite of ours, desert island disks. If you were gonna be stuck in the Paris Catacombs alone for the rest of your life with only a walkman and the skeletons for company, which five albums would you take?
Wu-Tang Clan: Enter The 36 Chambers, Muse, Absolution, Full Clip: A Decade of Gangstarr, something by Tom Waits… difficult choice though! A compilation of my 10 favourite Skream bangers, does that count?

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Ok now onto the good bit. You’re an explorer, can you explain to our readers what exactly it is you do?
I’m not sure I’ve earned that title just yet… I’m just a thrill seeker! A friend of mine is heavily involved in cave exploration and she visits places where humans have never even set foot before. And that defines exploring to me, because it really is about new places. When you consider stories like those of Mallory on Everest, the Mariana Trench exploration, and Shackleton’s efforts… it makes everything I do seem a little pedestrian! But what we do is relative to our experiences, so whenever I’m somewhere unfamiliar or new to me, it’s satisfying. Usually its the urban environment, as its accessible, but when possible there are disused mines to be explored, and I’m also into caving and rock climbing.
Really I’m just someone who’s curiosity never died. As kids we always climbed trees, explored the woods. But why should that finish when we reach adulthood? Why do we suddenly feel the need to conform? It’s just a continuation of that spirit – seeing potentially interesting places and just going into them, by whichever means possible. There’s a long scale though. At one end you have derelict buildings in far flung countries that nobody cares about, where you can roam around all day and not run into any bother. At the other end there are zero-clearance subway tunnels where you’re absolutely hemmed-in with the dangers and risks of the system. It’s the same with the caves and the mountains, different places and conditions, and you have an entirely different experience.
Also of course there’s the photographic aspect, and this is true for a lot of people – we take a lot of photos, and when you do something a lot, its natural to try to get better at it. Ever since the invention of photography its been the medium of choice for recording Man’s experiences and explorations. Consider some of those timeless shots that defined a remarkable achievement – Earthrise by the Apollo 8 crew, for example. I dream of one day producing a breathtaking image like that.

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You run the website ‘AdventureTwo’, how long have you been doing this and how’s the site been going? Are you part of any other websites or projects, I remember you saying you were planning a book?
It’s been going for about 10 months now, and the motivation was largely selfish. I had jotted down stories and reminders from various trips and had stacks of photos, but had no decent way of looking at them. Having an audience means that there’s a driver to keep putting stuff together, and this way I have a chronologically ordered record of where I’ve been, patchy as it is right now. For the moment though it’s mainly for friends to look at, and the people who I do this kind of stuff with – they often wouldn’t see any of my pictures and stories, even though I’d be inspired by theirs – it didn’t seem fair.
I think quite a few of us have talked about books at one time or another. A publisher in Paris has shown interest, but it’s not something I’m desperate to do right now. The difficulty I can foresee is maintaining control, and besides, there seems to be more money in selling prints. Aside from that I’m involved in another web project, a collaboration that’ll see the light of day when its ready.

You mentioned to me before this interview that you hate the word ‘urbex’, why is this?
It’s probably something we like as a species, having clearly identifiable boxes in which to put things, it makes us feel safe. The trouble is, once you call yourself part of something, there’s almost an expectation that you should share views, motivations, ethics and so on with a group of people who, largely, you don’t even know. Ultimately this is a selfish pastime – each person will get something different from it, or at least I hope so.
What’s supposed to make all this possible is not being bound by rules as the general public are, but instead pushing the envelope, taking things into your own hands and climbing that fence, opening that door, etc – it’s a form of escapism. If we create a load of new rules ourselves within this sphere, then we’re back to square one. Even within this activity some people like a rule-set so that they know what to do and how to behave. Sometimes you’ll even find people that adjust themselves and their behaviour to fit the definition – they want to be what they perceive ‘urbex’ is all about. Something as varied and natural as this doesn’t really need a name. I blame siologen though, as he claims to have coined the term.

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What is it that draws you to these places and has inspired you to dedicate your life to doing this?
The experience. The merits of a particular location have to come second to that, always. It’s a combination, and often a balance between different factors. On the one side you have that feeling of exclusivity, seeing something that few others do. And then of course there’s the excitement, knowing you might be caught. One night me and a friend, Frank, we climbed up a crane to see the view of the city from a few hundred feet up. We stood there in the breeze and took it all in, peacefully watching everyone go about their business. When we got back down below we went into a bar for a drink – I remember he called such places ‘alcohol feeding stations’ – and it was a mess. The place was crawling with half-drunk people trying to impress each other, and it was just disgusting. I really wanted to drag them outside and show them what else could be experienced in the city.
There’s definitely a feeling of freedom there, that you’re not bound by rules, that you don’t just accept the physical boundaries as they’re presented to you. It’s not in our nature to do so, and it’s why as a species we’ve spread around the entire globe and beyond. If those earlier pioneers hadn’t bothered to see what was beyond the tree-line, then things would be a lot different today. Our 21st Century society makes it easy to be lazy. Plus these places we go are often like big puzzles – you have to line up a lot of different parameters to make it work, and even then the margins may be very narrow. It all adds to the satisfaction when you pull something off.

Do you notice a particular type of person in the other explorers you meet, or is it a pretty broad range of ages and mentalities?
The range of ages and mentalities is huge. There’s quite a lot of fragmentation, and often subsets of people who get together because of common interests and ambitions achieve the most. In England you’ve got some obvious examples, like the groups in Manchester and London who’re really productive, and also the guys investigating the quarries below Wiltshire. Abroad there are the Moscow Diggers, Paris Cataphiles, and a large underground community in Minneapolis St Paul to name but a few. Meanwhile others focus on charting abandoned industrial heritage, or their own particular geographical area. Some are just looking for photo opportunities or ghosts. This is why I made the point about having one single word that’s supposed to define all that… there’s too much, it doesn’t fit.
I’ve found that the people I tend to associate with, and who have become friends, have similar interests in problem solving and risk taking, and also a strange fixation with underground railways and infrastructure. The creative angle, the photos and writing, that comes into it – all of us take that side fairly seriously too. But really I think you have to be friends with the people you do this kind of thing with, just like anything. You need to be happy sitting in a car with them for 10 hours, drinking with them, sharing jokes and stories. And it follows that you meet amazing people through it – the common interests are obviously what make it work. On a couple of week-long trips though I’ve been joined by people I haven’t met before, and that’s always interesting, seeing how it alters the dynamic. No regrets either – in fact ten minutes ago I was discussing a forthcoming trip, and who might be filling the fourth seat in the car. The actual places you go, or photos you might take… they’re not enough. You need to have a good time too.

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The about page on your website reads ‘What if?’ and is about the possible dangers of what you do, and more importantly about facing them. Do you often worry about these dangers and have the risks of this ever effected your life outside of it?
Now and then things will worry me, usually when there are things out of my control. Particularly unstable disused mines, mountainsides that are prone to avalanches or drainage systems where the parameters can shift drastically in seconds through no fault of your own. As always you weigh up the odds and make your decision. And that’s important – making the decision. It should be made having weighed up everything in such a way that you don’t regret it. This way, even if the worst case scenario pans out, you can accept it. You know that it was a lifestyle choice, not a whim or a foolish risk that you weren’t ready for, that it was always a possibility. You can’t play this kind of game and realistically hope to stop just before it turns on you.
All told though I’d say this has had a positive effect on the rest of my life. I remember about 5 years ago I first climbed a tower crane, and it scared the hell out of me, but within 9 months I was climbing ones twice as tall on my own. Likewise around that time I was scared of flying in airliners, I hated it, but have flown over 60 times since then. And what it comes down to is harnessing your mind. You take an objective view of the situation and analyse it from that point of view. The crane climbing – that’s someone’s journey to work. And the flying – millions of people fly every year. With time and persistance you can learn to appreciate this inner voice as a safety mechanism that has evolved over millions of years whilst at the same time understanding that it needs to be re-calibrated now and again. Fear is natural, it’s a good thing, but it’s disappointing when you hear people say “I’d love to do that but I’m scared of heights”, like they’re happy to just accept it, to let the fear define them as if there’s nothing they can do about it. Overcoming such obstacles is very empowering mentally – it’s one of the most rewarding things someone can do. When you start doing risky things, this whole pastime becomes as much about exploring yourself as it does exploring your surroundings.
So it’s a good mindset, and it’s something that we can benefit from in lots of ways. Going back to planes I’m always inspired by the test pilots, especially with revolutionary technology such as the X-1 and Concorde. Those guys had to plot out the flight envelope, and work out what was possible in the air where the margins for error were small. I remember reading about Neil Armstrong trying to learn to fly the lunar lander and ejecting mere milliseconds before he would’ve actually been killed. Compare that to your average family saloon car – it’ll take corners at 60 with no problem and yet so many drivers plod along A-roads barely reaching 40. So why is it that the majority of us are so averse to getting even remotely close to the edge? Why on the whole are we happy to stay well within the comfort zone, deep within the flight envelope? This is probably why we’re so useless at dealing with winter weather here, and big disasters – we think we’re in the ‘real world’, but really we’re in little bubbles – we’ve never been safer, and we screw up when we get forced out to the sharp end. It feels good to push back against that mentality, to remind ourselves that we’re mortal, and that life is finite. It brings the senses alive.

You’ve become less about the stereotypical deserted buildings we see often see in photos, and more about infrastructure and the more industrial side of things, can you explain what inspired this change and what the main differences are for you?
There are probably two things that are different now. Firstly it’s the places visited. My original interest was more the curiosity, the abandoned places themselves. They had (and still do sometimes have) a certain charm to them, but these days it doesn’t interest me as much. You have to go where you’ll have the best time, and there’s something completely unreal about climbing around in live service tunnels, subway systems and drains. You’re part of a moving system, something that isn’t asleep and besides, it’s different to what I’ve done before. It’s inevitable that we get bored – how many times can you walk round a rotting hospital or courthouse before it becomes just like the last one? And in turn, drains and subway will become repetitive, and then there’ll be something else to move on to. But it’s still good to keep things mixed up – one of the most enjoyable things I did last summer was return to the infamous Millennium Mills in London. It took an embarassing four attempts to get in there that month, before eventually succeeding one morning, but it was fun.
The other difference is that I became tired of documenting the locations, and instead wanted to document my own experience. The shift is reflected in my website – the one I used to have was an index of locations, each one including historical information. The one I have now is written by trip or city or country, it’s not about having 30 photos to show somewhere from every conceivable angle, it’s about including just enough written and photographic content to illustrate a particular time had by a small group of people. And as I said, it’s selfish really. My most popular visitor is probably me.

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You seem to travel abroad to explore a lot, is this simply a case of broadening your horizons? What’s your favourite country you’ve been to? Not just for the actual places you were hitting but also the culture, people and surroundings.
When you explore a building that’s plastered in no entry signs, you’re going somewhere that ‘most’ people won’t. It’s a breaking of routine, of (and I’m in danger of overusing this word) boundaries. If you go abroad, you’re extending that breach of normality. It was always the same when riding bikes, BMX, etc. The smallest little street spot to ride in another city would, for a time, be better than the raddest place in your home town. Somewhere new, far away, it’s adventurous and often full of surprises. Plus, why stay in the same grid square? Even abroad, some countries like Belgium you could go back to every year and not get bored, but there isn’t enough time to do that everywhere. For me personally I want to taste as many countries and cultures as possible. Spain, Germany, Bosnia… as you can imagine, they’re all totally different.
Last autumn I drove through Bulgaria, and at one derelict power station (unlike those you’ll find in Belgium, this place was just an enormous hulk of concrete) the owners let us in. They didn’t speak English, so we pointed at the cameras, and they shrugged. A bit later they came to find us en masse, one of them holding up a mobile phone, which was passed to my friend. On the other end an English-speaking person asked simply: “My friends would like to know – what are you doing here?”. We laughed, and through our somewhat remote translator were able to explain to these people what we were about. I think later the same day we stopped to take photos at four other places – all of them were monuments built by the side of the road, and in fact their design and construction made them more interesting than the usual urban exploration ‘bread and butter’, such as the power station we’d been to earlier. And nothing that day had featured on the Google Earth map of points of interest we’d taken with it, it was all unexpected.
My favourite country is France, beyond doubt, because that’s where Paris is. It’s an incredible city and one that for a while was like a second home to me, and it’s the city where I’ve had the most memorable times. And some of the best of those involved bottles of cider at the top of national monuments – it’s just about having a good time, and mainly that’s down to my friends there, proof again that amazing locations alone aren’t enough. The legal system there is (in my not too limited experience) fair and realistic – you don’t have the same fear culture as you do in England. Be it the hysterical citizens or the over-zealous police, over here it seems everyone’s just begging for some drama to go down. I can only imagine it’s because their own lives are boring, and they’re hoping the soaps they watch on TV will come to life. In France (and my French friends will probably tell me I’m wrong!) it just seems more laid back. There’s just more of a shrug, do what you like attitude. A certain stubbornness perhaps, and I like that.

A lot of people that do this sort of stuff hate graffiti, having the mentality that everything should be left as it was discovered, but I’ve noticed you seem a little more forgiving on this side of things. What are your views on graff, in general and in the places you explore? Do you have any history or interest in it?
As with anything, there’s a time and a place, but generally I like graf if it’s got some artistic merit. I’d be disappointed if I saw somewhere of historic value that might be restored get painted over but often these premises are abandoned and destined for demolition anyway – they’re fair game to whoever wants to make use of them. When I first saw the hoard of vintage metro trains in Paris that dsankt and qx found I was disappointed to see them heavily graf’d. But when I stood there and thought about it I realised that the trains if restored would be repainted anyway, and that what I was really lamenting was missing out on a photo opportunity. Some of the graf there is actually very good. So it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the time people are pissed off because something doesn’t look as nice to them. And since neither us nor the graf writers own these places, it’s fair game for whoever’s first. In the case of the transit systems, it’s almost always them.
Sometimes, such as in the Freedom Tunnel which I’ve written about several times, the graf is an important part of the locations history. There are lots of people who’ve got on their high horse and complained about graffiti in abandoned buildings even though they would have really marvelled over Freedom’s stuff if they’d seen it first-hand. Graf writers will always be easy targets, just as people like myself are. It’s funny sometimes how we as these rebellious so-called ‘urban explorers’ get all self-righteous about ‘the ignorant public’ slamming our own activities, but then act in the same dismissive way as them when we denounce graffiti outright. These places are to be shared with the hobos, drug addicts, squatters, BASE jumpers and gangs. We might consider ourselves on a nobler quest to ‘document’ the past, but it’s a very thin justification.

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You must have a lot of great stories. Care to share one that sticks out in particular?
The newest ones always seem the best, to me anyway. Last weekend I went to Barcelona to have a go at the abandoned metro stations there. Memorable was siologen offering a cheapo absinthe susbtitute to some American college girls who were studying abroad, whilst simultaneously amazing them with his intricate knowledge of their home cities. And he ended up sharing a dorm with them, just him and the five of them, and I wound up in a room with a psychopath who he’d pissed off earlier… Next time I’m booking the accomodation. The metro itself was hard work, as the tunnels are dark and we had no prior experience of the system, save for some drunken memories belonging to qx, and the fact that siologen had got there a day earlier than us to see what’s what. In the event we found out how to open some of the air vents, ran some tunnels by jumping off the platform in front of bemused passengers, and then managed to switch a load of platform lights on in an abandoned station before exiting through the very un-abandoned upper levels.
In December I met up with a load of people in Paris, those mentioned here, plus Yaz from ProUrbex, Vivo too from England, Marshall who’s based in Paris. It epitomised what all of us get most out of all this, exploring parts of the metro system we’d never managed to get into before, even being chased out at one point. On the last night there it ended up with four of us finally being caught mid-service down in the metro tunnels. I hadn’t even got a valid ticket, and also had some keys that I’d stolen out of a door in a different part of the system. I think Yaz had some keys and things he shouldn’t have. Typically siologen had yesterday’s underwear in his pocket! Being caught like that, the cops are called, and it always starts with a thorough search of your bag and person… We escaped arrest by the skin of our teeth, scraped together enough Euros to pay one fine so that Vivo could be released onto the streets to get money for the rest of us. Once they let us go, siologen made his Eurostar with literally 10 seconds to spare, and the rest of us knocked back a load of Japanese food and chilled out on the top of a church tower. Times like that, they’re hard to describe unless you’ve been there… you probably understand because you rode bikes, and for me that was very similar. They’re the best times, friends, adventures, just seeing what happens.

Is there anywhere you haven’t explored yet, that you’d really love to?
Over the last year and a half I’ve tried to go abroad at least once a month. It was also good to get back to NYC in November, for the city and the friends as much as anything else. Mainly though it’s been about seeing the rest of Europe, as it’s easily accessible. I covered about 20 new countries last year, and have plans for more this year (starting tomorrow). I’m currently looking into a couple more trips to Eastern Europe, hopefully Russia and Ukraine. If I can get back to the States in the summer then I definitely need to go and visit Minneapolis St Paul, and maybe Chicago. Detroit again would be good, but I’m trying where possible to go to places I haven’t been to before. When I’m done with all that it’s time to go to Asia. Swap the camera for a machete.

Ok cheers snaps, any last words you’d like to share?
Just a thank you to those who’ve tolerated, encouraged and inspired me. If they’re reading this, then they know who they are.

Check out the website here:

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