Photo Courtesy of Mike Giles

Exploring abandoned buildings challenges Giles to push past the initial fear of the unknown and discover new perceptions of beauty.


February 29, 2016

Cleveland State student explains the art of urban exploration

Venturing into abandoned buildings, otherwise known as urban exploring, can be a difficult concept to appreciate.

The idea of willingly entering the ruins of old, crumbling buildings might seem hazardous and creepy.

But for Cleveland State University student Mike Giles, the seemingly forgotten potential of those structures is exactly what draws him in.

“I think everybody can identify with the fear of being forgotten about or left behind,” Giles said. “So in a way, recognizing and paying homage to something existing in the void oddly satisfies parts of my own psyche.”

This isn’t to say that urban exploration isn’t hazardous and creepy. Giles explains that the fear is undoubtedly the best part to urban exploring.

“It’s like riding a rollercoaster for the first time,” Giles said. “You fear that something is going to go wrong, and for all you know, it could. But once it’s over, you just want to do it again and again.”

After his first experience in an abandoned airplane hangar outside of the Grand Canyon, Giles has since created a pastime of photographing old, deserted buildings and destinations.

“The first thing I do is turn my music down,” he said. “I don’t shut it off entirely because, in a weird way, music feels like I have company in an otherwise spooky situation.”

After confirming that there aren’t any other humans in the space, he can adapt to the silence and comfortably explore the area, turn his music back up and begin eyeballing compositions.

“I try and listen to music that matches the vibe of the location, which tends to be darker,” he said. “It feels like a movie soundtrack.”

He recalls a time around sundown when he was framing a shot straight down a middle school hallway and noticed some movement in his camera’s viewfinder.

“There were three dudes at the end of the hallway all wearing red bandanas over their faces. It felt like a western showdown,” he said. “Assuming I was about to die, I had no choice but to take my headphones out and address them as we stared at each other,” Giles remembered. “Fortunately, the crew turned out to be a handful of teenagers doing the same thing.”

According to Giles going to these places has been a good lesson in pushing through the desire to retreat in an intimidating situation.

“The real reward comes from enduring the instinct to leave, which is a nice metaphor for just about everything,” he said.

In surpassing the initial desire to run in the other direction, he’s discovered that he can always count on finding two things.

“Without fail, there will always be a random set of shoes laying somewhere, and I always wonder what the hell happened to the person they belong to,” he said. “Furthermore, all sorts of graffiti is everywhere.”

One message that Giles said he would never forget was a scribbled message on a gymnasium wall that read, “I miss the days when I was an addict. At least then I had a purpose.”

“Messages like this always strike a chord on a completely human level,” he said. “Somebody out in the real world wrote this message, and you’ll never know where they are now.”

For Giles, urban exploration began as something different for the time being, but ultimately reshaped his perspective of what is and isn’t beautiful.

“We don’t have oceans or mountains in Cleveland, and for that reason I used to have a jaded vision on photography — that every picture had to have majestic, rolling hills or breathtaking waterfalls,” he said. “It’s just not that black and white. There are powerful things all over this city, and every city, if you’re looking and willing to appreciate them.”


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