Risking Life and Limb to Snap Abandoned Places

Risking Life and Limb to Snap Abandoned Places

Thursday October 19, 2017 Written by koren

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Sneaking onto an Abandoned Japanese Island

One sweltering summer’s afternoon in 2015, Thoms and four of his mates executed a daring plan. After sneaking onto a boat docked off Nagasaki in South Japan, they wooed the captain with a wad of cash, then set off 15km north, to Hashima Island. It had once been a bustling mining community but was abandoned 40-odd years ago, after nearby undersea coal reserves dried up.

Dumped unceremoniously at the island’s sea wall, Thoms and his friends scrambled up over the rocks and into the overgrown grounds of a deserted school, ever alert to the threat of being busted. They set up camp before immediately going their separate ways. The light would soon fade and there was much to explore.

The guys met three hours later atop an abandoned apartment block (image above), slapping at voracious mosquitoes and snacking on food and booze they’d smuggled in. They watched the sunset over the 16-acre ghost city where they’d sleep before being whisked back to the Japanese mainland next morning.

“It was probably the best night of my life,” Thoms says. He’ll never forget it, especially because the trip is immortalised in a series of post-apocalyptic-seeming photographs snapped while roaming this decaying maze of concrete and steel.

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After climbing a fire escape and jumping through an open window, this traditional Japanese washitsu room was the first thing Thoms spotted inside a supposedly haunted Nikko hotel. He was delighted: where other abandoned settings tend to suggest lost wealth, Thoms reckons seeing these usually meticulous rooms in disarray somehow shifts the focus to the past occupant’s spiritual journey.

How it All Started

This hobby has consumed just about every second of the Melbourne photographer’s spare time for the past 13 years. And the reason he’s happily stuck out a succession of odd jobs, including stints at an equestrian centre and now a cinema: Thoms saves up every cent for ruin-hunting trips. The obsession stretches back to his rebellious teen years spent binge-watching horror movies (the derelict spaces of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman are major influences) or smoking secret cigarettes with friends in long-forgotten city corners.

“As the years went on, abandoned urban spaces took on a much more philosophical meaning. They became places where there was human narrative, filled with these lingering traces of human emotion,” Thoms says.

At first, Thoms focused solely on Australian sites, but the whole thing really took off when he managed to arrange a trip to Chernobyl in 2011, spending four days inside the exclusion zone deserted after the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster. He went back again in 2012. “It was this Soviet-era place frozen in time, so melancholy but beautiful,” he recalls. Since then, Thoms has captured poignant images from derelict places around the world, including China, Japan, Belgium, the U.S. and the West Indies.

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An abandoned ‘love hotel’ in Japan’s Chiba prefecture. In its prime, it featured various themed spaces to cater to the diverse sexual tastes of its clientele: Moroccan and medieval themed rooms, a Grecian bath, and a traditional outdoor Japanese bathing area. When Thoms stopped by in April 2014, he found this room full of old furnishings, plus a taxidermy owl curiously sans head.

Asbestos, Mould and Radiation

Traipsing around places long since left to rot does have its downsides: exposure to cancer-causing asbestos or nuclear radiation, mountains of pigeon shit spewing forth ammonia (which can cause the nasty, if comically named, respiratory disease called pigeon fancier’s lung), and the constant threat of falling through crumbling stairs and rotting floors.

Even humble mould is less than ideal: “I opened a door that’d been closed for a long time in a hotel in Japan, and my eyes stung immediately as I breathed in this stinging, hot, gross air. I still cough a bit from it, so I always wear a face mask now.”

The hobby also requires a fair bit of breaking and entering – minus the breaking part, wherever possible. “My mantra is: leave only footprints and take only pictures,” Thoms says.

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This “melancholy yet beautiful” hospital ward inside Chernobyl’s exclusion zone is Thoms’ favourite capture so far; a photo of it hangs framed above his bed. “I had a bit of a moment in that room, where I was so overwhelmed by so much amazing abandonment,” he recalls. “It was like the Holy Grail.” The hospital’s floors are now so dilapidated that no one can safely step inside.

The Modern Ruins of Japan

Shane Thoms is most fascinated by Japan – “I’m on passport number four with nothing but Japanese entry and exit visas” – and has amassed such an impressive body of work that he has just published a book: Haikyo: The Modern Ruins of Japan.

“It’s a bit of a death, that this beautiful tidy house with so much emotion and so much warmth inside – or so much darkness, sometimes – can be forgotten forever. I like that capturing it all promotes thought about our past, present and future.”

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Slightly sweaty businessmen once ogled scantily clad women here, a strip club now full of decaying retro treasures in Japan’s Okayama prefecture. Thoms says hanging out in this psychedelic time capsule was like stepping into the aftermath of a ’70s New Year’s Eve party that no one ever bothered to clean up.

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This is one of the many Soviet-era conference halls Thoms found in Prypyat’s civic centre, which looked as though its occupants had left only moments earlier.

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An operating theatre inside Japan’s Ikeshima Island hospital, which was abandoned in the early 2000s. More than a decade on, the dental surgery, hospital wards, X-ray rooms, morgue and maternity wing all remain untouched. “This was a haunting place because it was literally as if the doctors and nurses just disappeared one day, leaving everything as it was,” Thoms recalls.

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The ghost city of Plymouth, on the West Indies island of Montserrat, was evacuated after a volcanic eruption in 1995, then abandoned permanently in 1997 after a series of pyroclastic flows tore through its buildings. Empty shells like this still dot the exclusion zone, which Thoms explored in early 2016 – an eerie experience as that same unpredictable volcano continued smoking in the distance.

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Thoms found this huge bowling alley in a suburban town outside of Nagasaki, in southern Japan. He knows very little of its past, but says someone had clearly had fun trashing the place. “It had a gigantic bowling pin sitting in its parking lot, too, which was kind of funny.”

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While in New York to see death metal bands last year, Thoms was shown around this Rockland psychiatric hospital by a few in-the-know local photographers he met via Instagram, where keen “urbexers” trade abandoned locations like currency. He says the children’s ward was particularly melancholy, with colourful toys strewn across mouldy floors and photographs of previous residents peeling from the walls. 

See more on Shane Thoms’ Instagram @violent_crumble, and you can pick up a copy of his hot-off-the-press book, Haikyo: The Modern Ruins of Japan, here.

This article was originally published in Smith Journal volume 22, under the title ‘Abandonment Issues’. Grab a copysubscribe or find your local stockist.

All images: Shane Thoms