Discovering the undiscovered

Chaney Wynne



Peeling wallpaper, rotted wooden chairs and invasive ivy crawling up walls are eye-catching as one walks into an abandoned house, vacant for decades. While it might make some nervous, for Nic Huey, exploring the decaying properties of Atlanta is thrilling.

Huey, a senior at Woodward Academy, started exploring and photographing urban and often abandoned Atlanta properties about two years ago, as a sophomore.

“After searching around on the Internet and finding cool places and cool things to do in Atlanta, I went over to the Atlanta Prison Farm,” Huey said. “Ever since then, it’s been bigger and better things.”

Urban exploration, or #Urbex on Instagram and Flickr, is prevalent in many cities where people explore urban and decaying properties. Atlanta has a community of explorers ranging from high schoolers seeking mansions seen on Instagram to middle-aged men who’ve been exploring deserted properties since the ‘70s.

“I think the appeal to them is the fact that they’re seeing something that no one hardly ever gets to see,” Huey said of the older generation of urban explorers. “You know if you’re crawling through a utility tunnel underground or in an abandoned subway system or on a rooftop [of] like the second tallest building in Atlanta, you’re seeing a view no one ever gets to see.”

Grady High School senior Scott Semler has considered himself a part of the Urbex community for three or four years. He said urban exploration used to be “very, very counterculture.”

“Now, The Walking Dead is filmed in an abandoned building,” he said. “[Urbex] has gotten popularized.”

Huey thinks the social media and photography sharing platforms are causing “the game to change.”

“With Instagram blowing up, it’s led to this generation of urban explorers who are not actually finding places on their own and are not driving around and finding cool abandoned places,” Huey said. “They are just going on the Internet and looking at other people’s Instagram pictures and they’re just asking, ‘where is this, how can I get there, what can I do?’”

Urban explorer and Glennwood teacher Michelle Reynolds has also noticed a change in urban explorers.

“[Urbex] has definitely gotten a lot more popular through social media,” she said. “It’s become accessible to more people, too.”

After spending years mostly photographing her kids, Reynolds discovered her “true passion”: rural and urban photography.

She started out in Atlanta before advancing to taking pictures of rural properties.

“I just became fascinated with what these buildings look like inside and thinking about what was once there and what’s happened to it now,” Reynolds said.

Through social media, she met other people in Atlanta with the same interest. They shared tips about the best places to visit.

Her true motivator, though, was the “beauty in decay.”

Semler started exploring abandoned properties in Atlanta when he became interested in fine art photography.

“I’ve just always thought they are cool,” he said. “If it’s a building that’s been around for a while, I wonder what’s in there…the history of them is a mystery.”

Rather than exclusively photographing the decaying buildings themselves, Semler likes to capture “the way plants interact with those decaying buildings” and “how people interact with abandoned buildings.”

Junior Isabelle Romano-Landry is also passionate about photographing people in abandoned buildings.

“I just really love the act of exploring and capturing the feeling of being in new places in a picture,” she said.

Exploring and photographing deserted warehouses with a group of friends inspired Romano-Landry to seek more vacant properties.

“It was just kind of adventurous in a way,” she said. “It felt like something that was new and exciting and thrilling because I didn’t know what was going to be there.”

Reynolds’ first experience photographing a deserted building was also her most memorable. She visited an abandoned school called “Gordon” in East Atlanta.

“In a school, you’ll find piles of textbooks, chalkboards or sometimes the world maps up still,” Reynolds said. “It’s interesting because it does just look like someone left and never came back.”

After the first exploration, she was hooked.

“It was so new and different,” she said. “There was a tree growing through the second floor of a classroom. I just thought that was so amazing and cool.”

These vacant buildings don’t last forever, though. About a year ago, condos replaced Gordon.

“There’s been a lot places within the last five years that have come and gone,” Reynolds said, “so I feel fortunate to have seen some of these places.”

Despite the benefits that come from urban exploration, the risks are abundant.

From asbestos to black mold, urban exploration can be dangerous. Some people wear respirators to prevent illness.

“The risks are numerous, just very specific to the place and how old it is,” Semler said. “Something could be broken like the floor, ceiling, walls. There could be homeless people who live there, but that’s never really bothered me.”

Reynolds also emphasized the importance of exploring with a group and to “never go in somewhere by yourself.”

While Reynolds never encountered trouble with the law or trespassing, Huey has had some close calls.

One day, as Huey explored an abandoned machine shop with two friends, he heard yelling.

“I turn around and there are two cops running around the corner with their guns drawn on us,” Huey said.

Despite the scare, the policemen let Huey and his friends off with only trespassing warnings “because my girlfriend broke into tears, and they felt kinda bad about pointing their guns at us.”

For Huey, the “adrenaline rush” from entering abandoned places, in addition to new spots that are opening, motivate his explorations.

“Recently abandoned buildings, recently discovered tunnels and new constructions sites are always fun to explore,” he said, “but I’ve been traveling a lot. Now I’ll go to different states for spots that are kind of legendary.”

As for the future of Urbex, Reynolds is unsure.

“Part of me thinks it’s trendy and it might die out, but also, there are always new places coming up,” she said.

Semler sees urban exploration in Atlanta “going to the north” in the future.

“It’s going to get destroyed here pretty much,” Semler said. “They’re tearing down all of the cool places, and they’re using them for movies…the ones that I love that are here are just not as accessible anymore.”

Huey is afraid that Urbex is “just gonna go more and more to the Instagram side of things, where it’s younger and younger kids completely inundating the easier places.”

Whether good or bad, the popularization of urban exploration led to a new group of people who, like Romano-Landry, enjoy “going out and finding places that seem to be forgotten.”