In a vast, empty room, a funeral bier stands empty. An undertaker’s gown is draped over a chair, as though he just left the room.
But the dust attests to the fact that it has been decades since a body was prepared for burial in this remote mortuary in Brandenburg, Germany.
The only people around are photographers who scurry along the corridors. Jeannette Fiedler, 49, has travelled several hundred kilometres from southern Germany to be at this somewhat spooky site.
As a fan of lost places – what she calls abandoned, often derelict sites – Fiedler is no stranger to long trips. She photographs them, from former prisons to one-time schools or forgotten swimming pools.
Her five-year search for the shabby beauty of such sites has seen her tramping through mud and clambering through tunnels to view places that once were busy – and are now heavy with history and decay.
“As photographers, we want to transform this deterioration into art, we want to display the beauty of decay,” Fiedler says.
It’s a hobby she shares with photographers around the world, who call themselves “urbexer, ” short for “urban exploration” – people drawn to abandoned ruins, seeking to preserve their decomposition in images.
They share their pictures on social networks from Facebook to Instagram, posting them under the hashtag #lostplaces. Often those images show plaster crumbling off walls, stairways coated with a thick layer of dust and broken windows. Sometimes people pose among the ruins, making for a crime series aesthetic or horror movie charm.
Fiedler is one of a group who disapproves of such staged images, saying they are drawn to these places by curiosity, historical interest and the distinctive atmosphere of such abandoned places.
Part of the appeal is due to the fact that these sites are forbidden, and they are attracted by the desire to shoot that perfect image. Many of these morbid places are owned by individuals, meaning entering the spaces without permission is technically trespassing.
The photographers are running a fine legal line and could face prosecution. “Some don’t only come with cameras – they bring tools, too, in order to break their way in if they have to,” says Fiedler.
Generally, though, urbexers have a code: Don’t break in, don’t break anything, don’t steal, according to Fiedler.
As they’re abandoned, these sites also subject adventurers to peril, as police can attest by pointing to a series of accidents at such locations.
In Germany alone, an 18-year-old fell through the rotten concrete roof of an old rail freight station in the southern town of Kitzingen recently and was seriously injured by the 3m fall.
A 34-year-old was likewise injured in Erfurt in February, after falling on a sheet of metal which had screws sticking out of it. And a 30-year-old in Leipzig spent 12 hours in the bottom of a shaft at temperatures below zero, severely injured after failing to spot a hole in a bowling alley that had been empty for 20 years.
A tragic accident occurred in July, when a 22-year-old from the western city of Cologne was exploring industrial ruins in Bochum with two friends one night. She collapsed, and paramedics were unable to reach her for several hours, having to break their way into the site using bolt cutters on fences and barbed wire. They resuscitated her but she died shortly afterwards in hospital.
She wasn’t the first death in the industrial park.
That led the fire brigade involved in the rescue to create a video to warn the public of the dangers of lost places. Abandoned industrial sites aren’t the only ones that are potentially deadly, they said, referring to poisonous gasses that might not be visible at first.
Fiedler says she only enters buildings and sites if they are open or easily accessible. She never goes out alone, and nowadays, she organises a permit or books a tour, as guides have now identified the appeal of abandoned places and the market for photography tours is flourishing. That is worth it to the urbexers whose videos are going viral on platforms such as YouTube.
A user called ItsMarvin posted a film of a hospital in Germany abandoned for a decade that was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. In the video, he and his friend find patient files, prompting the police to file a criminal complaint on suspicion of trespassing.
Filmmaker ItsMarvin, meanwhile, says he had uncovered a data scandal.
Fiedler and her community of photographers do not approve of burglaries. “We enter these rooms quietly, attentively and with respect,” she says. “We never touch anything, and we only take away what we sense, our memories and the images we create.” – dpa