You wouldn’t believe what an unusual year 2015 was for my photography adventures! It was a rollercoaster ride of twisting and turning moments: globe-spanning highlights, emotionally exhausting lows, physically draining explorations and decreased creative output. I’d like to share the journey with you now.
(Just want the 2015 list of feature interviews, articles, statistics and other highlights? Skip below to the summary section.)
2015: Reactively Proactive
The year began with a purposeful eye toward a less hectic travel schedule coupled with a determination to thoroughly review and catalogue an overwhelming photo archive. The plan was rooted in reactive and proactive approaches; I would decrease my creative output so I could be better prepared for ambitious future photography projects.
2010–2014 was a busy period of adventures across virtually all of North American and several regions of Asia and Europe. Tens of thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of video were sitting in the archives waiting to be organized, processed, and published. Despite having the great fortune to be featured in hundreds of magazine, newspaper, and online publications in recent years, the incredible adventures I had experienced were for the most part untold. An endless array of amazing stories about exploring abandoned places and empty spaces around the world were desperately waiting to be shared with an ever-growing fanbase.
I wanted to spend the majority of 2015 taking a “photography sabbatical” so I could write about some of the adventures and catalogue the photo archive. Autumn would be reserved for the most ambitious and lengthy adventure of my photography career – a two-part journey across western Europe and four key Asian countries.
This became the outline for 2015:
- take a 2–3 month sabbatical from photography to thoroughly review and organize my photo archive
- do a limited amount of urban exploration in my local region (for the first time in a few years)
- produce my first (and frequently requested) photography book
- embark on a career-defining, two-part autumn photography adventure, beginning with western Europe and ending with an arc of four major Asia countries
Intertwined amongst these plans was a potential relocation to Japan to work with a company in the Kyoto region.
As you might anticipate, some plans came to fruition and other plans unexpectedly vaporized.
Much Photo, So Overwhelm, Very Asia
Simply put, I vastly underestimated the time required to review and catalogue the photo archive. Fragmentary organization prior to 2015 gave the project an initial boost but it still required 6 non-consecutive months to complete! Parallel work began on the photography book; an outline and initial skeletal chapters soon materialized.
An impromptu trip to Japan for business, and to visit a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer, happened in January. Naturally, I took my DSLR and managed to slip in a few hours of exploration at a sacred abandoned place for Japanese urban explorers, the rapidly decaying Maya Tourist Hotel (摩耶観光ホテル). It’s the oldest and most famous abandoned hotel in Japan.
As Spring approached, a little Asian serendipity appeared; I came into contact with Ran, a local fan from Beijing, who suggested I should pursue the Chinese market. Her gracious assistance, guidance, and translations suddenly exposed my work to a massive audience in a way I hadn’t even considered a few months earlier!
We created and curated new accounts on Chinese social media, such Weibo and WeChat (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are blocked in China). One particular post on Weibo, which featured several photos of Detroit ruins, caught the attention of a writer for Photographic Travel (摄影旅游), a magazine with a half million circulation. That lead to a beautiful 8-page feature in their September issue (65mb PDF). My plan to explore Asia during the Autumn season suddenly included a growing selection of locations in China.
(I must also give a huge shoutout to my friend Rosie in London who is also originally from China. She was incredibly kind to share her expertise in artist promotion and Chinese culture. I’m truly fortunate to have so many amazing friends like her around the world!)
This sudden focus on China was a welcome diversion because I wasn’t pleased with the photography book’s progress. The writing wasn’t matching the high standard I set for myself at the outset of the project and I wasn’t certain how to rectify the situation. I decided that a quick trip to New York City to do some street photography could be the antidote.
Street photography has never been a major interest for me but I’ve done it occasionally as a means to shock my system, so to speak, in the hopes that doing something uncharacteristic might recharge my creative juices. I recommend trying this with any art form you practice; for me it’s akin to a formula for conquering writer’s block.
When I returned home, an unwelcome situation – my 14-year old cat Summer’s rapidly declining health – forced me to halt all activities.
Summer was a troubled little calico when an ex-girlfriend and I adopted her in 2002. It took a few years to make her healthy and to make her feel safe around humans. We predicted that she wouldn’t live past 5 years due to her fragile health. She lost all of her teeth and experienced digestive problems for many years but infinite love and affection kept her strong. Eventually, she became an adorable and affectionate little cat.
Our relationship ended in 2011 but we managed to cooperatively share and look after Summer. As 2015 approached, and with the possibility of moving to Japan becoming more likely, we agreed that she would permanently stay with my ex-girlfriend. This lead to me taking what would become my personal favourite photo of 2015:
Summer’s kidneys rapidly declined after she moved in with my ex-girlfriend. Within a couple of months, the inevitable moment arrived and she had to be put down. I lost both of my parents at a relatively young age and two other beloved cats but, because Summer needed us the most, her death was probably the hardest one I’ve experienced. You pet owners out there will understand.
Like any photojournalist, I captured the entire sequence of Summer’s life, including the serenely surreal moment immediately after she took her last breath. Later, it led me to ponder how photographers manage to maintain their composure and focus during moments of crisis. I have to credit my father’s influence in these types of situations. During the night of my mother’s funeral he was the calming voice of comfort for many distraught family and friends. It was remarkable to witness him suppress his own sorrow to become everyone’s rock. Maybe his actions that night allowed him the space to privately deal with his loss after the dust settled. But the dust never really settles.
The Future is Wide Open
Summer’s death segued into the next major change of 2015; negotiations with the Japanese company fizzled and I wouldn’t be moving to Japan. June closed out with these two major endings which, as is my nature, I would try to turn into new, positive beginnings.
I decided to get back to basics. I began to document abandoned places in my local region again and to pore over international maps for the purpose of plotting future explorations.
Ran joined me during several of these mini-trips (to study my photography techniques) and also provided insightful guidance while we marked points of interest on maps of China. In exchange, I took her to one of the best Bortle-scale dark sky preserves in Ontario on Manitoulin Island. In one night she was able to see, for the first time in her life, a trifecta of astro-wonders: a radiant band of our Milky Way galaxy, the mystical Northern Lights, and the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower shooting across the night sky like little silk strings. It was a magical night of galactic awe!
You might be familiar with my extensive explorations of abandoned theme parks around the world, such as the mist-shrouded Nara Dreamland in Japan and the haunting Six Flags New Orleans in America. Closer to home, I managed to explore the first theme park I visited as a child, the mid-sized Sauble Beach Fun World.
It’s quite surreal to see a treasured setting from the balmy summers of your childhood end up in a rapidly decaying and abandoned state. Forgotten memories come flooding back like g-forces on a go-kart track and, as you stand amongst the mangled metal, overgrown weeds and cracked pavement, you’re left wondering what the future holds for the next generation of beach-bound fun-seekers.
As the summer months came to their seemly always-abrupt end, and with the journey through Asia become increasingly extensive, I decided to postpone further work on the photography book. I wanted to ensure the book would include what was quickly shaping up to become the biggest adventure of my photography career.
Tour Over Europe
Autumn and its cool nights soon approached which meant the first leg of my year-end adventures was about to begin.
I attended a week-long conference in Barcelona and then set out for a road trip across France. Additional stops were scheduled in Belgium and England before returning home to Toronto.
The original itinerary included explorations of an abandoned train station and nuclear power plant in Spain. However, I read several reports about the Spanish police’s increasingly strict requirement for having an international driver’s licence. I couldn’t find mine before I departed Toronto so I opted, at the last minute, to do a road trip across north, west and central regions of France.
The whirlwind journey landed me in these diverse locations:
- Dieppe (to see the fatal landing site of the Dieppe Raid where hundreds of Canadian soldiers were killed in a failed attack on the Nazis)
- an abandoned boat during sunrise on the west coast
- an abandoned discothèque and a gorgeous golden hour drive through the west-central Poitou-Charentes region
- an abandoned town that was the site of a horrific Nazi massacre (642 men, women and children were brutally killed)
- an abandoned jet airliner and abandoned château that were both impossible to access
Upon returning the rental car, I was immediately en route to Belgium to meet up with Val, an artist whose study of abandoned places I highly respect and recommend.
We explored a few interesting abandoned homes in Belgium but the highlight for me was the gorgeously decayed Château Miranda (aka Château de Noisy).
The journey concluded with a brief stopover in London to visit friends and do some night photography on the River Thames. It was fantastic to meet up with Sophie and Rosie (mentioned above) again!
Final planning for the 6-week second leg of the autumn adventure began as soon as I returned from Europe: visas were obtained, remote destinations in China, North Korea and Japan were selected, and Ran arranged for a 1-month apartment rental in Beijing.
And then, I accidentally ate parasitic squid.
During a final planning session, Ran and I met for dinner at Teppan Kenta, a highly rated Japanese restaurant in Toronto. I ordered their DX Okonomiyaki dish and within hours experienced an acutely violent reaction to, according to my doctors, a food-born parasite. It led to a hellish 11-week digestive system meltdown; the worst illness of my adult life!
This rare illness (I never get sick) forced an abrupt cancellation of the Asia adventure. All other photography activities, for the most part, ground to a screeching halt.
Admittedly, I experienced a few very dark moments. At one point, it seemed destined to be a chronic illness but I kept reminding myself that an unfathomable number of people around the world were suffering more than me in immeasurable ways. I knew that one day my good health would return.
Ironically, I received a battery of tests that revealed – apart from the parasite problem – that I was experiencing the best health of my adult life! I was tested for Colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and Celiac Disease and all test results were negative. The blood tests were virtually perfect and my blood pressure was the best its been in the past decade.
Fortunately, the illness subsided shortly before Christmas and I was able to get out of the house to shoot one last photo for 2015.
The year ended with a call from a casting producer from Los Angeles. Maybe I’ll have something interesting to talk about in 2016…
Interviews, Articles, Statistics and Other Highlights
Extended periods of inactivity didn’t cause a major slow-down in momentum. I was fortunate to be featured in several print and online publications. Additionally, there were several statistical highlights.
- Maya Tourist Hotel (摩耶観光ホテル) abandoned hotel
- New York City street photography
- Sauble Beach Fun Park abandoned theme park
- dark skies photography in Ontario
- road trip through north, west and central France
- abandoned castle and homes in Belgium
- night shooting in Barcelona and London
Social Media Statistics
- 7.3 million Flickr photo views
- 45,000 social media followers (doubled from 2014)
- 100,000 average tweet impressions per month
- 11 photos in Flickr’s Explore (their top 500 photos per day out of 2 million public uploads)
- featured by several Instagram accounts with up to 1 million+ followers
Massively popular Instagram accounts, such as It’s Abandoned (1.2 million followers), Abandoned Earth (411k followers), and All Abandoned (359k followers, featured several of my abandoned theme park posts:
Flickr Explore is a section of the site that features the top 500 photos posted of 2 million daily uploads. I was fortunate to have 11 photos reach Flickr’s top 500.