James Kerwin photographically chronicles ghost towns of the world with Uninhabited

STIR chats with Kerwin about his ongoing photography series Uninhabited, which highlights the intrigue, beauty and solitude that reside within abandoned structures of the world.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Mar 04, 2021

English architectural photographer, James Kerwin, shares that travel plays a significant role in his powerful “image-making”, and is what got him into this domain in the first place. The travel restrictions since last year have visibly dampened the spirits of hodophiles, but not Kerwin’s pursuit to capture derelict buildings long forgotten and lost to the web of time. With his ongoing series, Uninhabited, he takes it a notch ahead by traversing to ghost towns such as Pripyat in Ukraine and the diamond rich area of Sperrgebiet in the Namib desert, now reclaimed with a sea of sand and a palpable air of neglect.

His love for the medium began and transformed into an all-consuming passion more than a decade ago, when he purchased his first ‘real’ camera in Hong Kong, a Panasonic Lumix LX3. Like a loyal pet owner, he would take his camera out often to practice his craft via wedding and event photography over the course of four years. “I stumbled across architecture photography in late 2013, and I have been shooting inside abandoned spaces and buildings ever since,” Kerwin states simply.

A deserted room in Kolmanskop, a town in Namibia which was a well of luxury many years ago | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
A deserted room in Kolmanskop, a town in Namibia which was a well of luxury many years ago Image: James Kerwin
Teal tones burying themselves in knee-deep sand (Kolmanskop) | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Teal tones burying themselves in knee-deep sand (Kolmanskop) Image: James Kerwin
The desert sands' reclaim this once-thriving town | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
The desert sands' reclaim this once-thriving town Image: James Kerwin

What began with Decadence (2014 – 2015), his first series chronicling abandoned structures, has now progressed into a bulky portfolio, ranging from Domum Dei (2016-2017: neglected churches across Europe), Relinquished (2018 – 2020: decrepit mansions across Belgium, France and Italy) and A Paradise Lost (2019: decaying spaces of former glory in Lebanon) and more.

STIR speaks with the award-winning visual storyteller about his experiences, what prompts these series that freeze in time unconventional relics and ruins, with a focus on his latest one, Uninhabited.

Jincy Iype (JI): How did your relationship with architectural photography, and in specific, of chronicling abandoned spaces, begin?

James Kerwin (JK): Honestly, travel is what got me into, well, travelling and clicking spaces. On my way back home, from Melbourne, Australia, in 2010, I went via Hong Kong and Thailand. While in Melbourne, I lived with a German guy that was super into photography – he inspired me to pop down into Queen Victoria Market there to pick up a camera. That’s it, from this point on, I taught myself daily, these places beginning my quest into the medium.

Inside Al Madam, an inland ghost town of the Emirate of Sharjah (UAE) | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Inside Al Madam, an inland ghost town of the Emirate of Sharjah (UAE) Image: James Kerwin
Inside an abandoned structure in Kolmanskop | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Inside an abandoned structure in Kolmanskop Image: James Kerwin

I hail from the fine city of Norwich in the United Kingdom; it was a place I always returned to after travelling. Since January 2019 I have taken to the road full-time to undertake a nomadic lifestyle with my girlfriend Jade, as we strive to grow a better photography and adventure tour business.

I visited nine countries in 2017 alone, and close to 20 since my journey into architectural photography commenced. I have always been fascinated by different cultures, food, textures and colours. I found myself directed toward abandoned places, wanting to capture the emotion in their abandonment – these places carry so much history, a directory of how humans raised buildings and fled them, how these spaces outlived those people, and so on. 

JI: Uninhabited focuses on ghost towns and villages – tell us what makes up your research for it, from deciding the locations and the process you follow.

JK: I drew up a map of locations around the world and decided I would visit as many of them as possible, however some trips have been cut short because of the pandemic. I wanted a variety of locations in the final output, and one or two on every continent. For now, I have managed to capture places lost to time in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Namibia.

The green barely lives inside Al Jazirah Al Hamra in UAE | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
The green barely lives inside Al Jazirah Al Hamra in UAE Image: James Kerwin
Inside of the structures in Al Madam, a buried village in Sharja  | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Inside of the structures in Al Madam, a buried village in Sharjah Image: James Kerwin

It was originally designed to be primarily shot to feature across my YouTube channel. There are hundreds of ghost towns, cities and villages around the world. A bit of a research online, of reading up, from watching documentaries and films, and you get a list of places you would like to venture into. Some of these towns are extremely difficult to reach, but the travel is always the fun and most time consuming part of the process.

JI: When did you start putting together Uninhabited and when do you see it culminating?

JK: I began in 2019 and I had planned to complete the series by 2024; but now there is a slight possibility that the series may never get completed. I wish to visit a few towns in South America as well as the Caribbean at some point. If the travelling permits, I do plan to continue this series.

Drone shot of the Al Madam mosque in UAE abandoned to time  | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Drone shot of the Al Madam mosque in UAE abandoned to time Image: James Kerwin
Sand overtakes the entrance of the mosque  | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Sand overtakes the entrance of the mosque Image: James Kerwin

JI: What draws you towards ruins and abandoned places? Why do these particular spaces of disrepair become your core subject, not just for this series, but for all others?

JK: Texture, detail and colour is a huge draw. However, I am a firm believer that the heritage that surrounds us should be preserved a little more than it is. These are magical and beautiful in their own manner, and it is the case in every country I have been to. Also, not everything that I photograph is abandoned. Many interiors are simply hidden in the cities and shocking as it may seem, many of my recent shots are in locations that are still either partly or fully used.

Sunrise backlits this neglected room in Kolmanskop | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Sunrise backlits this neglected room in Kolmanskop Image: James Kerwin
A doorway seen inside one of the ruins in Namibia, once home to diamond miners  | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
A doorway seen inside one of the ruins in Namibia, once home to diamond miners Image: James Kerwin

JI: What goes through your mind when you step into these spaces of history?

JK: I just get excited and intrigued - I love seeing what is hidden. My main love is shooting beautiful architecture – not necessarily mansions packed full of stunning furniture or gold lined wallpapers. The heritage and the unusually lonely state it is in draws me in – we just don’t produce this stuff anymore. It is important to slow down, I believe, to reflect and wonder, learn from these spaces and our ancestors who populated them, the histories they spun within these walls.

JI: How would you describe your work and focus?

JK: Solid Poetry?

My primary focus is capturing rich colour palettes and straight lines in the camera, then utilising modern post-processing techniques to develop each completed image. A series really depends on where I go – for example I was in Lebanon for three weeks for a series in 2019, and the editing took four months, while the timeline was different for De Facto – where I captured war-torn Soviet architecture. It also depends on my sense of satisfaction (laughs).  

How a building in Pripyat looks like right now | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
How a building in Pripyat looks like right now Image: James Kerwin
Of hope and human folly: Chernobyl, near Pripyat in Ukraine | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
Of hope and human folly: Chernobyl, near Pripyat in Ukraine Image: James Kerwin

JI: Who and what inspires you, and in turn inspires these travels and series?

JK: I follow plenty of amazing photographers like Elia Locardi and Mike Kelley, as well as lesser-known inspirations like Greg Snell, a video and content creator based in Germany. As for what, it is this pure love for travel, combined with my deep passion for photography, that keeps me motivated and dedicated to putting in the long lonely hours of research and planning; my camera too, that leads me to places I otherwise would probably never see.

The current state of Kolmanskop contrasts with its past, where a century ago, one could pick diamonds lying around | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
The current state of Kolmanskop contrasts with its past, where a century ago, one could pick diamonds lying around Image: James Kerwin
A teal blue walled room in Kolmanskop submerged in the desert | Uninhabited series by James Kerwin | STIRworld
A teal blue walled room in Kolmanskop submerged in the desert Image: James Kerwin

JI: Lastly, if you were to select the background score for Uninhabited, what would it be?

JK: Many people reached out to me on Instagram with manipulated versions of photographs that were taken in the Namibian ghost town of Kolmanskop, for a recent Tame Impala album. So, I must give that a musical nod! Let’s go for Lost in Yesterday.

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