All photos by and © Ciarán Fahey.
FOR THE PAST decade, journalist Ciarán Fahey has been documenting Berlin’s abandoned places: factories, train stations, hospitals, power stations, shuttered embassies, decaying villas, and everything in between. On his website Abandoned Berlin he documents these disappearing places in photos and words, focusing on the stories hidden behind crumbling walls and boarded-up windows. The human side of these modern ruins lies at the heart of his project: as the site’s welcome message says, “every crumbling building, creaking floorboard, fluttering curtain and flaking piece of paint has a tale begging to be told.”
With Berlin’s unique history — in particular its role at the heart of the Nazi era and the Cold War — many of the places featured have had their share of darkness and tragedy, which the site never shies away from, and often explores at length in the essays that accompany the photos.
Bust of Lenin, Fürstenberg
Overhead passageways, Kraftfuttermischwerk Fürstenberg
Exploring abandoned places is a contentious practice in and of itself, and documenting them after the fact draws ire from property owners on one hand, and the more elitist elements of the UrbEx community on the other, who don’t always appreciate their clandestine locations being shared with the greater public. Fahey shrugs off both these contingents, instead reserving his criticism for the developers who would make Berlin into just another global capital: “Bland apartments, generic shopping centers – who knows what perils await? Links to yesteryear are scrubbed clean and sanitized, historical mementos covered in concrete or plaster, everything forgotten under the guise of progress.”
Fahey has produced two books, published in dual German / English editions by Berlin’s be.bra Verlag, with the second being released this month. We took the occasion of the publication of Volume 2 to talk to him about his project.
It’s been five years since you published Abandoned Berlin Volume 1. Since then it’s sold over 12,000 copies, which shows a level of interest far beyond niche explorers and historians. Why do you think Berlin has such broad appeal, and in particular its abandoned places?
Berlin appeals because of its history, its completely fucked-up and fascinating history. I don’t think the abandoned spaces alone are part of this, but of course they’re remnants of that traumatic past, and people are interested in the stories, the reasons such places are abandoned in the first place. There are so many stories it’s ridiculous.
Central staircase, Schwimmbad Blub
This is actually what drives me to take photos and write about these places, to ensure the stories are not forgotten, even if the participants would almost certainly have preferred another way of being remembered.
You’ve spent the past few years studying photography, which is evident in your more recent photos for the new book. How has being more conscious of photographic techniques changed your perception of the places you visit?
I’ll accept that as a compliment! But to be honest I’m not sure my photographic techniques have changed much. It’s true I’m more critical of what pictures I’ve taken before, but ultimately when I take a photo, my whole way of thinking and mode d’emploi remain the same. I think. It’s true I’m more aware of what I’m doing, more conscious, more deliberate. Maybe that shows.
Abandoned car, Trabiwerkstatt
The comments on some of your older pieces sometimes span years, and have a fascinating and almost forensic progression. Comments on your Iraqi embassy piece, for example, cover deterioration, squatters and parties, a fire, further deterioration and ransacking, and finally the barricading and complete gutting of the building. It’s sort of a chronicle of the life-cycle (or death-cycle) of a place. Do you feel there’s a “community memory” for some of these places, and if so do you see your site as a hub for it?
Yes, certainly. This is an unexpected but welcome development for me. Because of course the stories never end, they continue and develop, and are ongoing still. So I love that people leave comments with their impressions, their reports, their snapshots of a time and place. I can’t do it on my own. The site lives from the input of others.
Because of course the stories never end, they continue and develop, and are ongoing still
There seems to be a small but vocal contingent of visitors to your site who disagree with your project, taking offense at everything from perceived slights about the DDR to helping people find and access the sites you visit. Where do you think this vitriol in the so-called “UrbEx community” comes from?
Haha, yes, that’s true. They’re quite vocal! The biggest bugbear for many in the so-called urbex community – which I’m happy to say I never joined – is that I publish addresses to the places I write about. Some are justifiably worried that this will lead to an increase of visitors to the detriment of the places involved. I can totally understand that, but I know that these places’ time on this earth is limited anyway, that if nature doesn’t reclaim them, construction workers, diggers or wrecking balls will.
There are so many examples of this already in Berlin. There are many places on the site that have already fallen victim to “development.” Yet some people don’t want any of these abandoned places to be visited by anyone – except themselves. I suspect a lot of the vitriol comes from people who are upset that that their “secret spots” are no longer so secret.
Bottles and table, Villa Schade
Any places on your list you haven’t yet visited and are looking forward to?
Yes, plenty. But you’ll just have to wait to find out what they are!
Verlassene Orte / Abandoned Berlin, Volume 2
be.bra Verlag 2020
Click here to buy a copy via the Abandoned Berlin site.