A Defense of Rooftop Photography

A Defense of Rooftop Photography

The unfortunate and widely-reported death last week of 26-year-old rooftopper Wu Yongning led to a lot of discussion regarding rooftop photography, personal responsibility, and the blurred boundaries between urban exploration, parkour, and "exposure porn" - i.e., hanging from the edge of buildings or balancing at incredible heights in order to create photos, videos, and short-lived internet fame.

I've been involved with rooftops extensively over the last 15 years (sometimes legitimately, mostly illegally). I also spend a large part of my time photographing people performing actions where, if they make the slightest mistake, they will be seriously injured or, in many circumstances, killed. In addition, I once climbed 145m up the side of a building to take a photograph. I'm not sure that I would do it again but I can honestly say that it was one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my life. As a result, I hope I'm in a position to offer an insight into what drives the people to seek out the tops of tall buildings, why I think the imagery has important cultural value, and why very rarely it's as reckless as you might understandably assume. 

Chris Rowat and Chris Keighley jumping between rooftops in Quebec. Image by Andy Day.

Chris Rowat and Chris Keighley jumping between rooftops in Quebec.

A few weeks ago, National Geographic ran a piece about parkour. Upon reading the article, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's the world's most dangerous sport given that people seem to be falling off roofs and dying every week. The truth is that when you compare it to American football or horse riding, it's incredibly safe. The disconnect here is twofold: firstly, parkour is not what is portrayed in the media. The overwhelming majority of practitioners stay at ground level. Secondly, our perception of risk is completely warped by convention and habituation. If I were to invent something that could completely transform people's lives around the world but came at the cost of 1.3 million lives every year, would we embrace it? Probably not. However, it already exists; it's called the car.

Rooftops have an allure; not only are the views amazing, but they offer an environment that, in the words of JG Ballard, has been built by man, "not for man, but for man's absence." The fact that they are off-limits, the domain of the rich and powerful, established by global forces beyond our comprehension, is what makes them so appealing. In addition to this, our ability to move is often at the heart of how we perceive our own sense of liberty and autonomy - whether it's in a car, cycling around a city, or, in the case of parkour, being able to run and jump through the urban environment. The ability to move is empowering, a notion that is fundamental to our comic book heroes who can appear wherever they like, at just the right time. Culturally, this loops back: as a society, we respond to this idea, and in turn, some of us seek it out.

Oli Thorpe climbing in Copenhagen. Image by Andy Day.

Oli Thorpe climbing in Copenhagen.

Add into this the fact that public space is becoming increasingly scarce, this infiltration of private space is, to an extent, an effort to temporarily re-democratize the city. It is a reminder that however rigidly controlled the city might become, there are always elements of society that are exploiting the gaps in the system; resisting - however inadvertently - a post-capitalist society that tries to keep us quietly producing and consuming, and never stepping out of line.

In 2015, academic Theo Kindynis wrote a despairing critique of rooftop photography, lamenting the fact that what had once been an anarchic, subversive practice had become mainstream, co-opted by commercialism, and dominated by a proliferation of images that had come to ignore the value of the physical experience. This supposedly radical practice is performed for the most part by middle-class, white, able-bodied young men with access to expensive equipment that is, in effect, legitimizing criminality - "Sorry, officer, I'm just here to get a photograph." It is a competition for subcultural status and one that has become commodified by sock sponsors (of foot-dangling selfies) and camera companies. Creating a spectacle was always a huge part, but it seems to have become reduced to nothing but the image and conforms to a society in which people are constantly trying to validate themselves through their Instagram profiles. As Kindynis explains, transgression is now a leisure activity.

Flynn Disney exploring the rooftops of Senate House, London. Image by Andy Day.

Flynn Disney exploring the rooftops of Senate House, London.

Bizarrely, perhaps the most radical and subversive (aka, the coolest) thing that you can do now is head out at night, slip past security, climb a skyscraper, stand heroically on its highest point overlooking a vast megacity - and not take a single photograph. 

I'm not quite so cynical. Perhaps it's because I'm a photographer, but I've never seen the same distinction between the experience and the resulting imagery. As XKCD wonderfully once observed, "some of my best adventures are built around trying to photograph something." That said, there's a part of me that despairs at this race for likes and internet fame, and it was only a matter of time before an incident like this happened. Sadly, others will almost certainly follow.

Thomas Couetdic atop Buzludzha, the former Communist Party headquarters of Bulgaria. Image by Andy Day

Thomas Couetdic atop Buzludzha, the former Communist Party headquarters of Bulgaria.

The athletes that I work with are vastly experienced. I would say "professionals" but very few make a living from their training, despite performing at an elite level. My collaborators are all incredibly skilled and have immense knowledge of what they can do, having been making complex judgments about their personal safety for years. For parkour athletes, in everything that they choose to do, there is absolutely no recklessness. Statistically, you driving your car is more dangerous - both for you and everyone else - than the movements and performances that these people create. Alongside training that is on par with Olympic athletes, many see encounters with fear as part of a discovery of who they really are. Some will see this as hippy shit, but, having on occasion deliberately put myself in dangerous situations in order to negotiate them with skills that I've rehearsed over many years, I can only say that it is hugely fulfilling; it shapes who I am today, how I know myself, and what I am capable of (If you'd like to learn more about risk-taking as a positive experience, I recommend researching the concept of "edgework," as conceived by social psychologist Stephen Lyng).

I can't make a judgment on Yongning's ability. I had the misfortune of watching the video of him falling without really thinking through what I was about to see, and part of me now regrets having seen it (I don't recommend seeking it out). Even having seen him fail, I don't know what he was capable of or how he prepared for his stunts, physically, mentally, and practically. If he wasn't capable, then yes, the thousands of commenters calling him stupid are probably right. However, as someone who has been involved with this scene for a long time, I would argue that you can't make that judgement unless you actually spent some time with him and saw him train; it's difficult to make that call from grainy mobile phone footage, however expert you think you are from your armchair.

Tim Shieff on the rooftops of London. Image by Andy Day

Tim Shieff on the rooftops of London.

Working with parkour athletes and climbers, I've no real interest in photographing someone simply hanging off the side of a building or from a scaffold bar above a vertigo-inducing drop. While it gets YouTube views and Instagram likes, for me, it's not that interesting; it lacks subtlety, complexity, and, by comparison, requires very little physical skill. I remember once speaking to one YouTube exposure-pornstar who felt a bit embarrassed to be placed in the same category as Alex Honnold as Honnold's feats require tens of thousands of hours of physical and mental training. Hanging from a bar or the edge of a building is nothing by comparison.

Perhaps this article isn't the best defense of rooftop photography. But while I can't defend the likes of Wu Yongning, I would ask you not to assume that every person who ventures illegally onto a rooftop has a reckless disregard for their personal safety in a narcissistic search for validation. Like many things, it is characterized by contradiction and not all of us are adrenalin-crazed morons with a lack of regard for private property. Some of us are undergoing transformative experiences as part of an attempt to create beautiful and thought-provoking images.

Lead image: Ash Holland on one of London's rooftops.

All images by the author.

Fstoppers does not condone or encourage trespassing or photographing at height without having taken appropriate safety measures under the supervision of a professional.

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Leigh Miller's picture

I don't think a picture is worth that sort of risk (personally). If someone wants to undertake it I wouldn't stop them either as long as they have insurance/finances to take care of their funeral plus expenses for property repairs etc.

Kyle Medina's picture

Do what you want, I don't care, the photos are awesome. We examine risk vs reward on a daily basis which determines our actions to what we do as indviuals. Suffer the consequences whether legal or death. Never apologize for your wrong doing, you know what you're doing. Own it and move on.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I don't know. How can you truly sit there and defend an activity that's illegal?

I'm all about free will... do as you wish, but don't go writing an article with that message- you're only going to encourage people who shouldn't take risks... to take a risk. I say this as a 45 year old with two kids. I'm not a tight-ass by an stretch, but I'll pass on this. I also think younger people who take this stuff on risk cutting their lives unnecessarily short.

In a day and age of fleeting moments, instant gratification and the 24 hour news cycle / internet glory, a person is risking everything for a photo that is now unoriginal and will be forgotten in minutes. Just my two cents.

michael buehrle's picture

you wanna hang off a building and do a few pull ups ? go ahead, just make sure you can do more than 2 when you try the third one. i could care less that he fell off the building last week, his choice. now will his wife/girlfriend/parents/ambulance chaser lawyer go after the building ? probably. that's not right. that is the #1 reason why you can't do it is because of the lawsuits after the fact. cool pics yes but you know the risks, same as taking pics on train tracks. it's called thinning of the herd. if you are dumb enough to climb out on a ledge or not get off the tracks when a train is coming then you deserve to get squashed. that might sound cold but your not 8 years old and don't know any better.

Andy Day's picture

Do me a favour. Call up the best lawyer in town. Tell him/her that you want to sue your local bank because you broke your leg doing parkour on their roof. Let me know how you get on.

michael buehrle's picture

i will guarantee you 100% that i could find a lawyer to take my case. it is no different than suing mcdonalds for serving coffee that's too hot or a gun maker because someone shot you or bar because you got drunk and crashed your car or cigarette company for making you smoke. does not mean i'm gonna win but big companies have deep pockets and you will get a payout.

Many of these cases are blown out of proportion, though – the coffee-case for example seems to have been quite justified indeed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald%27s_Restaurants

michael buehrle's picture

maybe. but when i drink something hot i assume that it is hot.

Did you, uh, read that link?

There's a difference between 'the coffee is hot' and 'the coffee is ridiculously hot, so as to give third grade burns'.

michael buehrle's picture

i did not. coffee is hot. period.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

The coffee was hotter than the health dept regulations...but don't let the facts get in the way.

It sure is helpful when someone gives you quick proof of their willful ignorance! Saves us the time from having to confirm it.

Could you please point to the area of the New Mexico Food Service Code that states these temperatures? I was unable to verify your facts.

Andy Day's picture

I'm intrigued as to where you're getting your information from.

In the UK, section 2 of the 1957 Occupier's Liability Act outlines what property owners are responsible for, and it specifically states that if the visitor is invited or permitted to be there, the property owner is liable. There is no duty of care if a person is trespassing. If this weren't there, it would open the floodgates for abuse - people would be deliberately trespassing in order to injure themselves in order to take legal action.

I don't know US law but a quick Google seems to contradict everything that you're saying. I think the critical difference with the McDonald's case that you mentioned is that the complainant was not trespassing. As for the other cases you mentioned, I'm not really sure how they can compare as there is no trespassing involved.

For a payout without it going to court, a company being sued generally weighs up the odds. If there's a 50% chance of a loss, to cut everyone's court costs (in the UK, you cover the winning side's legal fees), there's usually a settlement in line with what would have been agreed had it gone to court. If there's a 20% chance of a payout, the settlement is significantly less but everyone goes home happy. Any less than that, and the defending side would be happy to take it to court. As a complainant, you'd have to have some VERY deep pockets to risk bringing it before a judge as the odds are a LOT less than 20%:

"Generally speaking, if someone trespasses on your property and they get hurt, you will not be liable. You are free from blame unless: You have acted violently or aggressively toward the intruder, which causes injury; You have been grossly negligent and/or expect that trespassers may enter your property." - https://gesinjuryattorneys.com/if-someone-trespasses-on-my-property-and-...

"in any lawsuit by a trespasser against a property owner, the court will essentially say, “Mr. Trespasser, property owners are not usually liable for injuries to trespassers, prove why your case is different.”" - http://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/personal-injury/when-property-owner-...

These were the first two websites I found when Googling and they seem like reputable law firms so hopefully it's reasonable for me to assume that they are an accurate indication of US law.

As an academic and a researcher, I'm interested to learn more. Would you mind finding this lawyer you mentioned that would take this case and put him/her in touch with me so that I can learn more? Thanks!

Sergio Tello's picture

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. I feel sorry for those who have to clean up the mess.

user-156929's picture

"If I were to invent something that could completely transform people's lives around the world but came at the cost of 1.3 million lives every year, would we embrace it? Probably not. However, it already exists; it's called the car."

I don't know the answer but how do the number of deaths in the two activities compare by percentage of practitioners?

I agree with others, you can take whatever risks you like but I am concerned for the safety of those at ground level, should you drop something or fall, yourself.

Michael Holst's picture

His comparisons are extremely flawed if he is only considering the total number of deaths and/or injuries. A simple T-test would help determine if there was a significant difference between the dangers of driving a car verses rooftop photography.

We should also consider the amount of room for error people have. In a car there are seatbelts, airbags, crumble zones and other things to make it safe. I can't imagine there is much room for error in climbing to the tops of buildings.

Worldwide, there are 1.015 billion cars in use(est 2010). 1.3 million car related deaths per year is only 0.12%.

There are no statistics to determine how many people are doing parkour/freerunning/rooftop or the number of worldwide deaths. So claims that it is/isn't safer than anything are meaningless.

What we can know is how it can affect people legally. Defending trespassing can lead to more people doing it and with that will come people who don't consider the risks. Look...Fstoppers even put a disclaimer on the bottom of article.

If a business is found to have not properly secured their property and someone gets injured/killed, then they could be held liable for damages. Maybe a large bank can keep a lawsuit from hurting them but what happens when something goes wrong on the roof of a smaller business that doesn't have deep pockets or the resources to defend themselves? If it starts to happen enough, (with more people doing it because of articles like this, it will be more common to get hurt) building security will have to go up as well. Any business that misses the memo, "stupid people are coming and you better be ready", might end up with a dead kid on their sidewalk and a lawsuit coming their way.

This is why we can't have nice things!

user-156929's picture

Owning a Volvo, I'm clearly in favor of safety! :-)
Actually, my wife made me buy it. :-(

Michael Holst's picture

Volvo’s are cool IMO. I’ve never had a bad time driving one and some of the older models look sweet.

user-156929's picture

Mine is a newer CX70. I wanted an older model because they look more rugged but...
I always tell people, "I wear the pants in my family but my wife picks them out!" :-)

Andy Day's picture

See the reply from Mark Toorock further down this page.

jon snow's picture

Sad, but the Darwin awards come to mind

Dallas Dahms's picture

I was going to make the same comment.

As Forrest would say "stupid is as stupid does".

Christian Santiago's picture

This whole theme of self discovery through illegal and dangerous activities is one steaming load of BS. Why? Because when some idiot slips and falls, the first thing his/her loved ones will do is file a lawsuite against the building’s owners to try and get paid for their loved one’s stupidity.

It shows s blatant disregard for private property rights and for your own safety.

Considering that Fstoppers is perpetually bombarding it’s audience with pleas to avoid photo shoots on train tracks, it’s down right hypercritical for them to give a platform to something equally as dangerous and way more illegal.

Andy Day's picture

Do me a favour. Call up the best lawyer in town. Tell him/her that you want to sue your local bank because you broke your leg doing parkour on their roof. Let me know how you get on.

Brian Stricker's picture

"The fact that they are off-limits, the domain of the rich and powerful, established by global forces beyond our comprehension, is what makes them so appealing"

Really, I mean come on? Maybe I am to cynical but I think it is more for the the "likes".

Andy Day's picture

That's not what I was saying.

Michael Holst's picture

.... but isn’t that what you said?

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