Interviewed by Tenacious B
Jean-Claude, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and give a little bit of insight in to you’re amazing work!
To start off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Shantideva is my nickname as a photographer on the Internet. I use this name with great respect because Shantideva was an 8th. century Indian Buddhist scholar that is particularly renowned as the author of the Bodhicaryavatara.There is no other book that I read as often as the Bodhicaryavatara. Born in 1970 in Paris, I live since my earliest days in Luxembourg and have the Luxembourgish nationality.
I am working in the IT as a network and security specialist and manager of the IT department in a mid size company in Luxembourg.
Digital Photography became one of my many passions a couple of years ago while I was taking pictures of my hiking trips all around Luxembourg. My first digital SLR was the Canon EOS 350D I still use today for all my industrial speleology pictures. I have spent a big part of my spare time all along the last years to study all the little secrets of photography and to practice with my new digital camera.
In 2006 I started to visit old abandoned iron ore mines. Fascinated by the underground world I have discovered underneath my feat, I started to experiment photography and lighting techniques to get the most out of the captures from within the mines explored. At that time I decided to buy the new Canon EOS 5D as the Canon 350D was dedicated to heavy-duty jobs like speleology from now on.
In parallel with photography and mining speleology, I began to study the history of the iron ore industry in Luxembourg to find out as much as possible about the places I have visited.
Very soon I started to visit the old abandoned buildings related to the iron ore industry, and to take pictures of those buildings with my new 5D. Out of that, a new passion for architecture and decay was born.
At the moment I use a Canon 5D MK II body for all my architecture and portrait photography. Most of my pictures have been made with the Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens EF 16-35 L f/2.8, the diagonal Fisheye lens EF 15 f/2.8 and the tilt-shift lens TS-E 24 f/3.5. Today I think that photography, exploring abandonments and mining are deeply interdependent.
Probably one could exist without the other, but this burning passion, this deep love for those places, full of serenity, abandoned by the crowds would not be the same, if I could not bring back some glimpses of decay and impermanence in a life where we all grasp for a permanence we could never reach.
What triggered the urbex virus for you?
I got into urban exploration due to some private research I did about the history and culture of Luxembourg and my ancestors. I started to take pictures in abandoned industrial buildings. My first pictures were private documentary work but I quickly realized that there is some tremendous beauty in decay and my photographic work quickly evolved into a more artistic approach and I began to develop my style of processing to show my vision of that beauty. From that moment on, my photographic horizons expanded to all types of abandoned buildings.
How do you prepare yourself for your urbex adventures?
There is not so much preparation because I always try to do single day explorations. Usually I don’t explore alone. Part of the preparation is to find a date that is convenient for the participants. It is often of advantage to go to these places on sundays so I try to organize my trips on a sunday. I try to find as much information as possible about the location a couple of days before the trip (if it is still doable, how to get in, where to park the car, etc.). Then I prepare my gear as described in the answer of the question about my gear and there we go for another adventure…
Would you call yourself an explorer who takes pictures or an photographer who explores?
Most people have different motivations when they go out to take pictures in abandoned locations but they can be divided roughly into two groups. For some of them it is a mere adventure and they bring back some low quality snapshots just to have an evidence of having been at this location. I call these pictures the ‘I-was-there-pictures’. And other people go onto these locations to bring back some artistic pictures of decay with well thought compositions and good processing. Thats what I call the difference between an explorer who takes pictures and a photographer who explores.
I’d rather call myself a photographer who explores but I would never pretend that this is the only correct way to explore. Everyone does his own business as long as some ethics are respected.
What gear do you take when you go out for a full day of exploring?
I always carry the same gear for urban exploration. These are my Canon 5D Mk II Body with 4 lenses and a tripod. I see the world in wide angle so I carry mostly wide angle lenses with me. These are the EF 16-35 L II f/2.8, the EF 15 f/2.8 diagonal Fisheye, the TS-E 24 f/4 tilt-shift and the EF 24-70 L f/2.8. As a tripod I use the Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber with 468MGRC2 Hydrostatic Ball Head.
Beside the photographic gear, I always carry a black swat suit, Kevlar gloves, army boots and a torch with me.
Are there any photographers that inspire you and why?
There are photographers that have inspired me to go out and take pictures. But I have never tried to imitate someone else’s work. I’d rather call it admiration than inspiration. There is work from other photographers that I really admire but I inspire myself mainly by the feeling I have when I am on location and taking pictures. The moment is my inspiration and not the pictures of other photographers although I admire the excellent work a lot of other urban explorers show on the internet.
What is youre worst experience while exploring? And what did you do to prevent this in the future?
One day you get used of being caught. I think every explorer will be caught at least one time on a place he should not be, one day or another. I got caught several times but I think the worst of those experiences was in Forges de Clabecq. I was there together with another explorer. This location is approximatly 250 km away from Luxembourg. We were inside the territory for about 5 minutes when we got caught by the security guards. They accompanied us to the main entrance and called the police. We had to wait nearly one hour for the police. They have controlled our passports and checked our identities and we could then leave the place without having taken one single picture. All in all we have made over 500 km that day without taking one single picture, but at least we did not need to follow the police on the police station.
I am a bad student so I did not really learn something from that experience, except to be a little bit more cautious and to take care not to be too exposed when I approach places I want to explore.
You seem to be a very religious/spiritual person, does the bodhicharyavatara (info here) translates back to urban exploring for you personally?
Or does it help you in any way?
Being influenced by eastern philosophy, and mainly by Buddhism (Shantideva), I have learned to be very sensitive to impermanence and to accept it as a very important and beautiful part of life.
Life and movement are not possible without impermanence. It is a movement in time that results in age and decay. I discovered the beauty of evolution and combined both: the passion for the history and culture of my ancestors and the love for decay and impermanence. The result of both influences is the essence of my work. I try to show the beauty of abandoned architecture left to decay, usually perceived as disturbing and repugnant debris of forgotten times. There is no book I read as often as the Bodhicharyavatara. Impermanence, being part of the essence of the teachings that can be found in that book.
How do find/search for new locations?
It depends on the type of location. I often get information about old houses, farming houses and mansions in Luxembourg from people that have to deal with such locations due to their job.
So I often get information about houses that will be destroyed very soon because the electricity and water has to be cut. Sometimes I get contacted from neighbors or family members about abandoned houses because they have seen my work previously. But this type of information is limited to Luxembourg.
I find most of the foreign locations by seeing pictures on the internet and examining the content of the pictures, the description and the title.
I love to do this detective job and in 90% of the cases I find the place without having to ask the photographer who took the pictures. I do this investigation by myself because I do not like to be asked for locations, and therefore I prefer not to ask other people for locations. Location trading is a bad practice comparable to a snowball system that quickly causes an over-flooding of the place with all its consequences.
You have seen so many places. What kind of locations do you prefer and why?
I cannot say that I have a kind of location that I really prefer. Every place has its charm no matter if it is industrial, residential or public. But I really like locations where I can find a lot of reminders and relics of the past. This is mostly the case for residential locations like farming houses, mansions and castles. I do not like empty rooms and trashed buildings full of garbage.
I want to take beautiful pictures and not to show waste dumps.
How is your workflow when it comes to processing your pictures?
I use manual exposure bracketing to take a series of images in order to create an HDR image. This HDR image is tonemapped in Photomatix. Then I import the tonemapped TIF LDR File into Lightroom and I continue to enhance the image in Photoshop and Lightroom to imbue the picture the feel and taste I perceived when I was on that place. This is the most important and artistic part of the workflow that determines whether I succeed to transmit my personal message to the people contemplating my pictures
What location is at the top of your “todo” list?
A couple of years ago I had a todo list with some top locations on it. Times have changed now and there are a lot of new and starting explorers that quickly flood a location as soon as it gets disclosed.
Today I would say that every location that is still ‘virgin’ and worth a visit because of its beauty is always on top of my todo list. The last locations on my todo list were the university, the Chambre du Commerce, ECVB and the Zeche Tausend Feuer (also called Zeche DB). These locations were still pristine (no tags, vandalism, broken windows, etc.). Today it is a matter of time if you want to be able to take pictures of a location because everything gets vandalised and closed so quickly.
Do you have any tips or tricks for new and starting explorers?
The only thing I would recommend to new and starting explorers is to look at the definition of ‘urban exploration’ in Wikipedia and to respect the ethics that all the longtime explorers still respect.
Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. And… do not disclose the location publicly to avoid vandalism, sprayers and flooding of ‘wannabe’ explorers.
That it for this month! I hope you guys enjoyed this interview and another big thanks to Jean-Claude for his time an effort, you really made an effort to answer the question!
You can view more of Shantideva’s amazing work here, urbex and nonurbex. Which of course is highly recommended!!: