When did you last do something that scared you?
I do more than I think people know- haha! A lot of my locations involve climbing and abseiling and as I had an abseiling accident in my teens which left me with scars across my head, I still get that rush of “nooooo!” before the descent (which is a film you should never watch if you’re afraid of the dark, confined spaces and the underground Gollum lookalike contest).
I’ve trained myself to do it in spite of that and this month I revisited the location that sparked off my interest in urban exploration which is now a huge part of this little adventure blog!
In my modelling days, I was asked by one of the worlds best known ‘adventure photographers’ Rebecca Bathory to do a photoshoot in the old Victorian crypt underneath Kensal Green Cemetery and was honoured even more by being asked to write stories to go with the images.
It was my first ‘stereotypically’ urbex trip; we would be making our way there at midnight and we needed to climb a swingy rope ladder up a high fence, throw and pass equipment over, dash across the cemetery and hide under another building before making our way downward. This done, I watched as Rebecca lowered the rope ladder again- this time into the abyss. Adrenaline shaking my hands and feet, I’d have fallen flat if it hadn’t been for the guidance of Rebecca and shoot assistant Danny, who climbed into the darkness first to check the undead hordes weren’t forming an orderly queue for our blood. They weren’t, so off we went through the underworld lit only by our little torches.
Many urbex locations are covered with graffiti and reclaimed by ivy, like long tentacles dragging the stones back down into the earth. Many are condom-y and needle-y. Every creak and small noise could be a crazed person coming to ‘get’ you. I expected to be scared to death down there (and what better place to be scared to death than in a crypt?)
but it was the stillest place I have ever visited. The air, silent. No breeze, no creaking- and no fear. Even surrounded by coffins, there was an atmosphere of peace. No matter how violently occupants may have died, they shared the same quiet and beauty in their chambers of rust, leather and stone. This is where I began to understand the appeal of “Dark Tourism”.
We shot three dresses and as Rebecca took many shots in different exposures so she couldn’t miss a detail, I spent a lot of the time standing motionless- though not for the ten minutes (at least) that a portrait required in the Victorian age! By 3am, the adrenaline rush was trickling away and the chill was setting in. We packed in almost silence. Tired, cold and exhilarated, we prepared to haul our equipment up the rope ladder again. We turned the lights out, leaving the crypt cold and dark once more. Mid-scurry back across the cemetery, something stirred in the night…
Note to me: Never hiss “fox, fox, FOX!!” at two shaky adrenaline-filled people halfway up a rope ladder no matter how close the lovely creatures are and how mushy you get over animals; it sounds like “cops, cops, COPS!!”
I didn’t think I’d manage to pull my weight over the fence for the final time but, numb and barefoot (my boots didn’t fit the rungs), I did at last with the encouragement of team awesome. An emergency chocolate and cider stop later and we were home.
Photo by Rebecca Bathory
I’ve been exploring abandoned spaces ever since- and this month I went to see one of my oldest friends (and another living Lara Croft- she’s an archaeologist and historian!) give a talk about photography… where else but Kensal Green Cemetery?!
Holly Carter-Chappell‘s talk “Shot Dead” dealt mostly with Victorian post mortem photography- the history, the reasons for its popularity and a look at its resurgence now. I’ll tell you a bit about it of course but if you ever get a chance to hear the actual talk, do it!
So at that time, photography was a very new thing and to have one’s portrait taken was a serious undertaking- you had to stand motionless for about ten minutes or the picture would be blurry- it’s why the Victorians were considered so sombre- a neutral face is the easiest expression to hold. Of course, a dead body was an excellent photographic subject… 😉
Victorians were less removed from death than we are today- people were generally born at home and died at home. The poor, especially, had a mistrust of hospitals which were breeding grounds for disease and often attached to workhouses. Dead bodies were not hidden away in the same way they are today and so the taboo about ‘The Body’ was simply not there. Holly stressed that post mortem photography was completely normal back then. In some cases, it would be the only lasting reminder that a person existed- especially in the case of a baby. Babies and small children (who would not have remained still for ten minutes) were common subjects for post mortem photography.
Holly touched on the ‘funeral selfie’ trend and we had a little audience debate over just how tasteful this was- or how understandable when sites like instagram take the place of a journal for a lot of younger people. In an age when we are used to documenting everything, is it so surprising that post mortem photography is becoming more common? Unlike a decade or so ago, we are beginning to understand that people need a chance to grieve. The body is no longer whisked away. People are encouraged to talk about their pain- acknowledge it.
We all have opinions and reactions. Mine is that most (but not all) of the modern photographs I have seen are pin-sharp, hospital-set and raw; seeming lurid and macabre in contrast to the soft Victorian ‘flowers and lace’. Then, a photograph was painstakingly composed every step of the way- to the point of using a back brace to help living subjects stand still. The very act of taking a photograph was of great significance. Now, we are so used to snapping away that perhaps now, it holds greater meaning when we choose not to take a photograph.
Holly also gave examples of crime scene photography being used- one was the goddawful Jack the Ripper Museum which applied for planning permission as a museum about women in the East End but focused solely on the murderer, paying tribute to his victims by listing their injuries beside a photograph of each and pinning it on the wall. (Ugh!!) There are ethical considerations to take into account when photographing certain buildings and historical places; I’ll talk about this in a future blog but as there may well be people who consider the image below to be disturbing, I’ll say this for now: I considered the project before officially agreeing and I’d probably consider it for longer now. I weighed in factors like what I would be wearing, whether there were living relatives and friends of the people named on the headstones, how I would interact with my surroundings, what the photographs would look like in terms of quality, and how well I knew and trusted the photographer. To me, there was a difference between a well-respected memento mori loving photographer whose books sell in Waterstones and Joe Bloggs from the local camera club shooting in the local graveyard with a model in a Morticia costume. (But that’s only my view.)
After the talk had ended, I went down to the crypt once more as on this occasion it was open to the public. Photography was not permitted and so I kept my camera to myself, but it was lit only with candle shaped LED lights and a few mounted gazelle heads as a strange sort of decoration. The last time I had ‘visited’, it had felt utterly still and peaceful. This time, the little lights in the shape of a crucifix, the near darkness and the glinting reflections from the glazed glass eyes attached to animal heads made things rather creepy indeed- something I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t sure if that was the effect the staff were going for or not.
It was strange and quite moving to come full circle from then to now (and this time with a guest pass) in the exact same crypt that began my relationship with urbex, without which I may not have begun this blog. I was hoping to end the day with a fox sighting just like last time but though I saw no foxes, I did shepherd a hedgehog snuffling its way across the road on my way home though.
Not everything repeats itself neatly; full circle does not always leave you exactly where you started. Things have certainly changed since that day nearly three years ago but that’s good- it means I’ve done things, had adventures, become different. Memento Mori means ‘remember you must die’; Memento Vivet means ‘remember you must live’.
Photo by Rebecca Bathory
Dress by Joanne Fleming Hair and make up by Rosie Lee