Take only photos, leave only footprints

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She slips off her sleek, gem-studded suede flats and pulls on her thick-soled, waterproof boots. She purposely doesn’t change out of her skinny jeans, trendy scarf or high-cut leather jacket. Rule number one: don’t look suspicious.

She stuffs her pepper spray, camera and flashlight into the pockets of her jeans and we walk toward the trail. It’s 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in Madison, and we’re searching for the spot in the fence where the barbed wire is cut. As we look, you can hear children playing and bikes whizzing down the trail. After finding the spot ⎯ our entrance ⎯ we take one last look behind us, take note of the red no trespassing sign, and hop the fence.

Half an hour later I’m flat on my back, shimmying my way through a 1 by 2 foot opening in the building’s rusted exterior. As I get to my feet after clearing the jagged metal, I get my first glimpse. Beams of light shine through the large holes in the tin wall, partially illuminating the enormous, desolate factory. Even the graffiti on the walls is starting to decay.

Urban explorers like Melanie photograph the concrete jungles of our past. Photo by David Kettinger

Today, I’m observing. Melanie is urban exploring. Urban explorers, or “urbexers,” make up a vibrant underground movement ⎯ sometimes literally ⎯ and are united by their passion for discovering deserted buildings and areas within a city. Urban exploring has been gaining steady popularity over the last decade, largely due to the prevalence of online community websites and the recent documentary “Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness.”

Today’s exploration was organized on a popular urban exploring forum, and aside from a pair of friends, we’re complete strangers to one another. Since the summer of 2009, Melanie has been exploring Wisconsin’s forgotten factories, churches, homesteads, laboratories and hotels, and her curiosity has taken her as far as California.

“Take only photos, leave only footprints” is the mantra of the urban explorer. Urbexers are adventurous thrill-seekers with one goal in mind: to photograph the unseen. By sharing their photographs, they share a unique understanding of our man-made past. However, acquiring these photographs can come with serious legal and physical risks. This is something Melanie knows all too well.

“The building actually collapsed partially while we were inside,” Melanie says.

She was exploring a 50-year-old paint factory in Milwaukee, which has been empty after operations shut down in 1999.The total factory site is composed of six buildings of 34,000 barren square feet  ⎯ a concrete playground for any urbexer.

Then it happened. Melanie and her fellow explorers heard a strange noise. Thinking it was the police or a homeless person, they paused until reassured no one was there. They journeyed on. As they made their way back to the entrance, however, the atmosphere immediately tensed. The entire second floor had collapsed over the first floor ⎯ over their entrance.

A concrete playground. Photo by David Kettinger

A moment of panicking followed by some quick, smart decisions by Melanie’s exploring friend allowed them to escape safely. “I was crying a little bit from relief and I threw down my respirator and said ‘never again,’” says Melanie. “’I’m never going to explore again.’”

She couldn’t stay away long. Just a few weeks later, Melanie leads the way as she wiggles through the opening in the barbed wire, covered in the white dirt. The ten of us begin our exploration. Only the sounds of our careful footsteps and cameras can be heard. Melanie already has a few new holes in her jeans, courtesy of the barbed wire. But it doesn’t bother her at all as she pulls out her camera and boldly takes off down the long hallway. It also doesn’t bother her that she’s the only woman on this exploration.

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