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A Year in the Life of a Photographer

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Nara Dreamland’s abandoned Aska roller coaster shrouded in mist.

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.

Maya Tourist Hotel (摩耶観光ホテル) ballroomMaya Tourist Hotel (摩耶観光ホテル) ballrooms rotary phone

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.

8-page feature in Chinas magazine Photographic Travel8-page feature in Chinas magazine Photographic Travel

(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.

Twin tower reflection of One World Trade CenterNew York City street photography in Chelsea

When I returned home, an unwelcome situation – my 14-year old cat Summer’s rapidly declining health – forced me to halt all activities.

Saying Goodbye

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 (February 2001 - June 6, 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!

Star trails photographed north of Toronto

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.

Sauble Beach Fun World abandoned theme parkSauble Beach Fun World abandoned theme park

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.

Barcelona night long-exposure

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

Location of the failed Dieppe Raid.An abandoned boat on the western coast of France.An abandoned discothéque in central western France.A gorgeous sunset and symmetrical tree-lined road in central western France.Early 19th century cars destroyed by the Nazis during the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre in France.

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).

A heavily decayed 2nd floor hallway in the abandoned Château Miranda (aka Château de Noisy) in Belgium.Chris Luckhardt photographing the abandoned Château Miranda (aka Château de Noisy) in Belgium.

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!

A long-exposure photo taken at night of the Elizabeth Tower (featuring Big Ben) on the River Thames in London, England.A long-exposure photo of spinning steel wool on the River Thames in London, England.

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.

The End?

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.

A photo of Toronto's 2015 New Year's Eve celebrations in Nathan Phillips Square, taken shortly before midnight.

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.


Countries Explored

  • Japan
  • Canada
  • America
  • Spain
  • France
  • Belgium
  • England

Adventure 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

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.

Abandoned Christmas

Monday, December 8, 2014

Associating abandoned places with Christmas might seem like a dark topic to explore. Fortunately, my experience with the combination has been rare; the two locations were spread across disparate states in America.

This little shack on the side of the highway was the real estate office for Santa Claus, Arizona. The abandoned town, which is located approximately 100 miles south of Las Vegas, was founded in 1937 as a tourist destination to celebrate Christmas. It thrived until its decline in the 1970s. In 1983, the entire town was listed for sale for the price of $95,000. The last business closed in 1995.

I've written about the abandoned Holley High School in a previous article. This former classroom's floor was strewn with Christmas decorations and children's toys.

Star Trails at Monument Valley

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Monument Valley is a beautifully serene corner of the Earth nestled along the border of Arizona and Utah.

I travelled to the American southwest, with science journalist Dan Falk, for an extended weekend designed specifically to photograph the Moon and Venus rising above the West and East Mitten Buttes of Monument Valley. The last photo I took that night, which was just before the sunrise, revealed a stunning mixture of blues and oranges in the eastern sky.

Rochester's Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital

Friday, November 28, 2014

Rochester's abandoned psychiatric hospital includes the ominous 16-story Terrance Building. The structure was operated by New York state from 1959 until 1995.

Devil's Lake Sunset

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sunsets are magical. They provide a chance to pause and reflect on the passing day — or epoch — depending on your particular sense of time and space. They give the Earth a chance to show off its beautiful mix of serendipitous chemistry.

As I was racing eastward across the flat plains of North Dakota, I couldn't help but stop a little west of Devil's Lake to photograph this amazing sunset. The rails were lit up so perfectly; it was like a reflection of the past 7,405km I'd driven across America and Canada up to this point. A seemingly endless journey to...something.


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