“It feels like you can see and hear everything with total clarity. Everything slows down. I generally try to work my way through as fast as I can. Noises like doors slamming and corrugated iron flapping in the wind never help to calm the nerves. I never feel comfortable when I’m in abandoned buildings,” says ,” says Brett Patman, an Australian photographer who specialises in capturing abandoned buildings.
“When I was in the Yubari surgery I was terrified! It was 3 degrees Celsius, snowing outside and I was in an operating theatre with a bone saw left on the operating table. Scary stuff.”
Brett’s photographs from this trip document the silently dying city of Yubari, located in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. Yubari’s story is one of extreme economic and social change. Japan was once the third largest coal-mining nation in the world and Yubari, put simply, had a lot of coal. This coal quickly became the backbone of the town, which boasted close to 120,000 residents in the 1960s, and even featured a coal-themed amusement park as its gleaming token of pride. But when the state government shifted resources away from coal and into oil in the 1980s, the mining business quickly dried up.
Crippled by mine closures and accompanied by failed attempts to boost tourism, Yubari went bankrupt in 2007, owing more than $400 million dollars to holders of its municipal bonds.
This devastating figure converted into major unemployment, infrastructure closures and the city being mass vacated. The town’s population rapidly plummeted to approximately 10,000 people – less than 10 per cent of its mid-1900s heyday. Yubari’s current claim to fame is housing the largest ageing demographic of people within Japan (by 2020, more people will be over 80 than under 40).
“In four days I probably saw less than 30 people on the streets in total,’ says Brett. “Yubari sits in a valley running along a river. It’s surrounded by mountains, which were mostly bare as spring was yet to bloom. Everything seems bleak and quiet apart from the howling wind and the occasional crow.”
Formerly a full-time hydrographer at Sydney Water, Brett’s passion for abandoned spaces first emerged when completing a job for a client in a dilapidated foundry.
“My colleague cleaned the oil cooler with compressed air, blasting all the dust and dirt out of the cooling fans into the air and then sunrays filtered through the perspex sheets and created this amazing scene. I think I still have an iPhone shot of this moment somewhere.”
It’s seemingly mundane moments like these – which most of us would disregard – that intrigue Brett, and led him to begin capturing abandoned spaces. His photos have “a bleak sadness to them” and blend the line between realism and art.
Starting out in his hometown of Sydney, Brett has photographed some of Australia’s most iconic – and equally forgotten – venues, from abandoned hospitals through to pubs where the last call for drinks was more than 30 years ago.
But he’s not always welcome.
“The ethics of urban exploration are pretty grey, [though] I guess in terms of the law it is pretty black and white. It’s trespassing if you don’t have permission and you run that risk in entering a property,” says Brett. “But I think there are other factors beyond this which are worth considering – I think documenting these places is important.”
For Brett, who now approaches stakeholders directly for shooting permission, the photos he takes are key to heritage preservation; helping others appreciate the built environment around them and generating discussions on how these abandoned spaces could be utilised for the community’s benefit.
But this doesn’t mean Brett has been accepted into the folds of the urban exploration (also known as urbex) community, who, according to Brett, prefer to keep their escapades secret.
“To say we should keep a site that really needs to be demolished a secret, when it clearly already wasn’t, so a select few people can go there to take a selfie is not something that makes sense to me,” says Brett. “A more sensitive building on the other hand, which is actually vulnerable to vandalism, is worth keeping a secret and shouldn’t be published.”
While Yubari was recommended to Brett by a friend, his travels through Japan didn’t end there. From the most northern island of Hokkaido, he traveled to Kinugawa, just outside of Kyoto, where a hot spring resort has become increasingly dilapidated since the last guest left in 1999, and then on to Nichitsu Ghost Town, an old mining village not far from Tokyo.
“There is a plant that grows everywhere called fukinoto,” recalls Brett. “I noticed it everywhere and asked our contact about it. She told me it represents the very beginning of spring as it’s the first thing to grow after the snow melts. It’s also edible and the Japanese often pick it while young and coat in tempura batter. This plant was sprouting everywhere in the ruins. It’s proof that despite all the degradation, nature finds a way.”