Past vs. present. Nature vs. civilization. Science vs. poetry. Why should important things always come in an irreconcilable duo? Answer: To let art play its part, and build bridges between the different poles of our lives, offering us a fleeting glimpse of the big picture.
Take Emmanuel Tecles (aka Tekprod), for example. This French fellow is a professional athlete and an amateur photographer. He has a strong penchant for every thing of the past, and yet can spend hours on social media promoting his pictures. He cherishes abandoned houses, but takes the utmost care of the photography website he built with Wix. His unifying factor? Urban exploration, or urbex.
This genre has ignited a huge interest in the photography world, over the last 10 years. Urbex consists of exploring and photographing everything that has been built by man (from a factory to a church, to a manor), before being abandoned. A promising up-and-comer in the field, Emmanuel helps us better understand this practice filled with adrenaline, history, nostalgia… and ghosts.
What urban exploration is
Hi Emmanuel! Glad to meet you and welcome to the Wix Photography Blog.
Hi to the Team! Pleasure is all mine 😉
Let’s cut the mumbo jumbo. Can you please introduce yourself?
I’m Emmanuel Tecles, French, 35 years old. I wear several hats, since I’m a physical education teacher in high school, a paddle tennis player, as well as an author-photographer. I started photography as an autodidact in 2008, and I’ve been doing urban exploration photography under my nickname Tekprod since 2010.
Can you tell us more about urban exploration photography?
This genre is also known by its acronym urbex (for urban exploration) since it broke, 20-25 years ago. The principle? Exploring and photographing everything that was made, and then deserted by man. One day, out of curiosity, I entered an abandoned train station in Canfranc, in the Pyrénées (France). I really enjoyed the atmosphere, so I took a picture to immortalize the moment. Then, I showed the snap to a friend, who told me: “Ah, I didn’t know you were doing urbex!” This is how I started urban exploration, without knowing [laugh]. Personally, I prefer to talk of exploration photography, because it’s a more open formula. Everyone explores the abandoned places in their own way, with their distinct style and eye.
Then, what led you to engage further in urban exploration?
A lot of motivations pushed me: my taste for history and architecture, the travels and the sense of adventure, the adrenaline you feel during the explorations, the curiosity to discover interior designs (some of them being incredibly sumptuous), and so on.
There is another crucial dimension: the critique of our consumerist society, which drives us to build and then to abandon, rather than to maintain. Finally, this genre echoes my own artistic sensibility. These deserted places are filled with poetry. I’m a very nostalgic person, I like the idea of visiting times I never lived in. That’s what I name as “anachronistic wanderings” – “Errances anachroniques,” the title I gave to my website. When I’m in those places, I enjoy the silence and only face myself. I feel good, like in a parallel world.
You mentioned history. Do you do historical research before going into exploration?
Yes. When a spot fascinates me, I do in-depth research to find archive pictures. They enable me to compare, to imagine what the building used to look like, and better understand how the time shaped the place as we see it today. I like to compare the before and the after. By the way, I’ve recently been contacted by the Municipality of Toulouse to take pictures of abandoned places, before and after rehabilitation. It’s my way of contributing to historic building conservation.
Who or what influences your work?
I could cite dozens of photographers, from all disciplines. But there is one that impresses me in particular: Aurélien Villette, one of the major names of urbex. He creates serious, thoroughly studied, and years-long projects. His work integrates the economic, social and political components of buildings. I had the great chance to meet him and go on a few exploration trips with him. He’s the kind of person who makes you want to progress and give the best of yourself.
Besides, my work is very much influenced by Tim Burton’s unique universe, especially for the dark and enigmatic side, and by the poetic books of the French author Mathias Malzieu, where imaginary is the keyword.
Exploring, not copying
Let’s talk concrete stuff. When you go on an exploration trip, are you alone or accompanied?
When it’s reconnaissance work, I often go alone. But most of the time, we’re 2 or 3 photographers to travel together. It’s always recommended to go accompanied. First, for security reasons. Then, when we’re in a group, we can help each other out. We share the expenses, which is not negligible since we cover a lot of road and incur a lot of costs. An average trip is 5,000 kilometers on 6 to 8 days – always by car, because it enables you to be more autonomous. For example, if one of the spots I planned to visit is closed or is being rehabilitated, I can move forward to the next one, which would be impossible by train. By the way, strategically speaking, I recommend to plan everything ahead, and localize extra spots on your route, just in case. Another tip: always favor local roads, they have a greater potential for nice surprises.
So cooperation between photographers really helps to be more efficient?
Yes, but it’s not only that. For me, it’s also a way to share the same passion: urbex. I like to meet people who have the same taste. I follow several photographers on social networks because I like their work and their approach. We often meet and go together on exploration trips. But I firmly denounce those who exchange spots without restraint, just for the sake of growing their hunting list. Those photographers are in a race for “likes” on Facebook and Instagram: it’s the worst approach, and it’s not mine. If a picture has a soul because it has been well thought and well captured, it will work well and on its own [smile].
What are the criteria of a good urbex spot?
First, it’s a place that is little-known, and thus little-photographed. Second, it’s a place well preserved, with the minimum of defacements – like graffitis, which I condemn because it’s clearly a lack of respect for our common heritage. Lastly, it’s a place with a natural decay, made by time and vegetation only. To find such a spot is the Graal for any urbex photographer.
It’s kind of rare today, isn’t it?
Yes, but you can still find some. There are many abandoned places in Europe that you can be the first to discover and capture. To be “the first” is a source of great pride in the urbex community. It’s true that it’s very rewarding to find a spot thanks to your own research. But I never balk at visiting a place that’s been discovered by someone else, before me. My own personal pride is to take from the spot a picture that resembles me, and to have the privilege of having seen the location with my own eyes.
Talking about the urbex community, how would you define it?
When I started urbex 7 years ago, it was still an underground community. The philosophy was pretty simple in that sense: the less exposed we were, the better it was. In France, we were only a few dozen and we were hyper-connected, thanks to social media. It was very pleasant, because we met from one region to another. There was a family-feel, without competition. The urbex trend busted 3 or 4 years ago, following a TV documentary whose original aim was to raise awareness of our architectural heritage – but had the exact opposite effect. A lot of beginners suddenly started urbex photography, with the excesses that you can imagine, like defacements and even casualties (deadly falls of youngsters in factories, for example). It’s due to the megalomania of a lot of photographers, who don’t get ready properly, and just take a smartphone picture they can share on Facebook and say: “I was there”.
It looks like urbex involves some risks. What are they precisely?
First, the insalubrity of the spots you visit. You have to be very careful where you put your feet, because accidents happen too easily. Second: to get caught by the neighbors or the police. This is why I only visit places that are private indeed, but truly abandoned in a way that I can enter without breaking anything – for example, by passing through the basement, or jumping on a balcony from a tree. If these conditions are not met, I simply go on my way.
An anecdote to share?
Of course, I could say the police arrests. But it’s not my most memorable experience. It happened in Belgium, in a house that was still full of furnitures, clothes and so on. The inhabitants vanished one day, with no further explanation. So here I am, taking pictures in the room of a teenager, when suddenly, a piece of plaster falls from the ceiling and breaks a bottle of perfume. The perfume spreads in the room and at the very same moment, the wind rushes into the room and moves the door. I felt a very strong feeling of presence, which still gives me shivers today, just by remembering the story. I felt very odd at the moment. Just like if a ghost was brushing past me. That’s one of the essential aspects of exploration: adrenaline and loads of emotions.
The rules of urban exploration
How to keep on producing quality work, when so many amateurs are proliferating in the field?
First, you have to scrupulously follow the rules. For example, never give a spot to someone you don’t know well, and never name a spot by its actual name. Second, you have to conduct a lot of research by yourself. I’ve identified and listed more than 500 locations, 300 of which I’ve already visited, in 10 European countries (France, Spain, Hungary, Poland, etc.). On top of this, you always need to aim for more creativity and new techniques. In parallel to photography, I started working with models who pose for me in abandoned houses, and I also create videos with a musician who’s a friend of mine.
Do you live on your photography occupation?
No, and I’m not trying to, since I already have another occupation. What’s important in my eyes, is urbex photography to remain a true passion. A passion I practice very seriously, though. Of course, it’s a terrific thing for photographers who make a living out of it.
How do you train?
Trials and mistakes [laugh]. Which is a long process, of course. What I could have done in two or three years, it took me 10 to accomplish. It’s also a bit frustrating, because a lot of pictures I took in my first period can not be published, since I was lacking the right technique.
Talking about technique, which gear do you take with you on your exploration trips?
I have two cameras: a Canon 70D and a Canon 6D. I work with a Sigma 12-24 wide-angle lens and a Sigma 24-105 f4.0. I also have a tripod and a LED for the light. Finally, you can find in my bag a Canon 500mm f/1.8. Overall, I often carry more than 10 kilos of equipment when on an exploration.
Which tips would you give to photographers who begin in the field?
Never botch the work. Always follow the rules, no matter what your style or genre. In urbex too, you have guidelines and you need to go by a specific process: search by yourself, talk with other photographers, take the right equipment, never travel alone and do things intelligently. Of course, you should also try to innovate and do something that others don’t. Everyone has to find their own signature as an artist.
And once you’re in front of your computer, how much time do you spend on editing?
Very little and a lot at the same time. Most of the work is done ahead. I’m not afraid to spend three or four minutes taking a single picture, to make sure I find the right settings, the right angle, the right light. Because after, it’s already too late. I’m not a Photoshop wiz, I’ll just work on the contrasts very swiftly. And at the same time, I do spend a lot of time on my computer, because I often work the same picture again, many days or months after, since the result that I want will change based on my mood.
Abandoned houses, well-kept website
Last time we checked, you were very active on social networks. How do you use these digital tools?
Social platforms are pretty addictive. It gives you the ability to get feedback in real time, for every single picture you share. And naturally, as an artist, you always want to spread the word on what you do, to have more exposure. So I use Facebook first, and I also moved to Instagram. But social channels are not enough; I also needed something more formal and professional. That’s the reason why I’ve chosen to work with Wix. What I do on social is peripheral: I always redirect to my website.
Why did you go with Wix for your photography website?
Wix was one of the first to offer a totally free version. Then, you can find on the Wix Editor tons of functionalities that are always challenged and upgraded. They progress while the user progresses. The tools are simple, well conceived and efficient. Each time there is a tiny bug or problem, it’s fixed. Last but not least, I like the endless possibilities and freedom. Everyone can do something great, no matter their level of computer skills. For example, I started from a photography template, but I ended up doing it from scratch.
Every time I come back from an exploration trip, I upload my pictures. I test every gallery, every animation. As a result, my site truly resembles me and evolves with me in the time.
Do you have web design tips for our (dearest) readers?
Refine your website as much as you can. It has to lead your readers straight to the essential. I didn’t go for a long scrolling website, but I made sure that my visitors never have more than two clicks to go from one page to any other page of the site. Second tip: always try to make something that resembles your art. For example, my background picture of a cracked wall. It perfectly tells my universe: on the one hand, the neat and design part, with the sophisticated logo and the white wall; on the other hand, the abandoned part with the crack. Sometimes, it takes just an image to create an entire atmosphere.
A last word, thought, quote or inspiration to share with our readers?
Everyone has an imaginary world that is powerful enough to go beyond what has already been created by others. You just need to dare. For example, one year ago, I dreamt of working with a certain model (and photographer), Moko Mad’moiselle. I contacted her on Facebook, and she accepted! Today, we work together on pictures and videos.
Same idea: I have the chance today of being contacted by people to showcase my work, in galleries, shops or even a website where my pictures are sold. In the close future, I’ll lecture in an architecture colloquium and I’m preparing two books, one about abandoned buildings, the other is a story with pictures – to go a bit deeper in my universe, the “Anachronistic Wanderings.” The moral: sometimes, you simply need to believe and let your imagination do the rest.