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Forgotten Memphis Captured By Urban Explorers

The "urbanex" movement is alive in Memphis.



Ashley Evans is standing in a hospital, armed with a camera. And she's about to point that camera at someone getting into a bathtub. The building, however, has been abandoned for decades.

Evans, who asked the Flyer not to use her real name to protect her anonymity, is part of a slew of photographers, artists, and documentarians who practice urban exploration, or "urbanex," investigating abandoned buildings. The person in the bathtub shot is a friend who went along on Evans' recent visit to an abandoned hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee. Urban explorers generally work in groups for safety.

Unwritten rules and mutual understandings of the hobby dictate that, while urbanex itself is inherently illegal, explorers should follow the hiking code: "Take only photographs, leave only footprints." Those photographs draw explorers like Evans and Nate Packard, another photographer who said he "dabbles" in the hobby.


Both Packard and Evans were introduced to and have explored some of the same places, and it's not surprising for amateur photographers to get their feet wet by capturing images from abandoned buildings. Before its recent revival, the Tennessee Brewery was one hotspot for beginning urban explorers, who were often guided by those who were more experienced.

Evans found her way to urbanex through another artist, who recommended she try it after gathering exterior photos of abandoned buildings.

"It seemed like [abandoned buildings] would make for interesting backgrounds for photography," Evans said. "If we had portraits to take, for instance, we would take them there. But it's also kind of an adrenaline rush. You're going into this dangerous place where a piece of a staircase could fall, or you could get some really beautiful shots with natural light coming in."

Sometimes the dangers mount even higher. Masks are required for some expeditions, as mold, dust, asbestos, and other chemicals linger in the air of some buildings. For other trips, security guards stand in the way of a complete exploration. Evans and a group of others recently visited an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Bolivar, but they had to do so during the day lest their flashlights tip off security guards circling the perimeter.

The appeal for photographers like Packard and Evans is multifold. It's not just the aesthetic, they said, though it doesn't hurt.

"A lot of the time, [we would go] because you could see something cool," Packard said. "For the [Tennessee] Brewery, it was the view. In the hospital [in Bolivar], it was seeing all the stuff and what it was like. There was one room where if you talked, your voice disappeared. There were no echoes. There's always something that draws you in. It's not just, 'Hey, let's go into this random building we just saw.'"

For Evans, there is also a creepy factor. At the abandoned psychiatric hospital, she spotted personal belongings — tennis shoes, purses, suitcases — all left behind in a check-in room.

"When I see these things, it puts these items into a story that may not be real, but it gives you some context as to what went down there," Evans said. "We found all these weird medical instruments we had never heard of. It takes you to a different time, especially if they're so intact like this place was. There were still beds made. There are boxes of [medical] files for patients."

The most obvious risk is arrest, since urban explorers can be charged with trespassing. But it doesn't seem to be an issue police have been cracking down on.

"To the best of my knowledge, we have not had any problems with urban explorers," Memphis Police Department spokesperson Karen Rudolph said. (Requests to elaborate were not answered.)

Other risks include the potential for injury or becoming a crime victim or stumbling upon something you weren't supposed to. Evans found a tick stuck to her back after one particular night out exploring, and she's added "potential Lyme disease" to her list of risks.

Some urban explorers traverse local abandoned buildings in the name of art.

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