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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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132 Comments
LA M'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.

Tim Tom's picture

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.

Tim Tom's picture

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.

Aaron Hill's picture

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

Mark Toorock's picture

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.

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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%.

Update:
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!

Deleted Account's picture

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

Deleted Account's picture

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

Deleted Account'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.

michael buehrle's picture

yep.

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.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Well said.

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.

Deleted Account's picture

.... but isn’t that what you said?

Michael Comeau's picture

I'd like to break into your house and take pictures so I too can temporarily re-democratize the city.

rob renierd's picture

You make a good point, if he can pick and choose which laws to obey then you should be able to too.

Vincent Alongi's picture

Game, set, match Michael. Love your statement.

Will wait for the author's response to that one...

Tim Tom's picture

Even though I get what you mean (I think), that comparison could be improved: There's, imho, quite a (psychological, at least, and arguably a moral one as well) difference between someone on a rooftop, preferably a "public" one, and someone being in your home, which is your own, private space (in the aforementioned psychological meaning).

Vincent Alongi's picture

Public rooftop? Not exactly possible. Real estate properties, i.e., a building, are pretty much owned by someone or some organization. Even if it were a municipal building, there would be restrictions in terms of certain areas of the building. A rooftop would be a no-brainer, given the safety issues... and resulting legal issues.

And you're also justifying something by pointing out a difference between a private home and a building's rooftop. Private property is private property. A building in a downtown setting vs. a home in a neighborhood are only different in their locales... not in the law's eyes of property rights and trespassing.

Tim Tom's picture

I'm sorry I didn't write in more detail what I meant.
I attempted to make a distinction between someone invading your private space, as in "your safe space, area, home, whatever" – your "psychologically" own space, and someone "only" commiting a crime, like when trespassing on a roof, which is not necessarily in your "safe"/interior/locked/private space – even though it might be atop of your property. My further distinction was about trespassing on, say, publicly-owned, but forbidden premises. Still a crime, but even less personal.

Although one might argue quite a bit about the moral aspects of the re-democratizing by trespassing, that's not what I wanted to get at. What I wanted to achieve was showing that the original comparison was bad, because trespassing in someones private space and taking pictures there would indeed be very invasive, and, like often found in burglaries, potentially traumatizing, while I'd wager that wouldn't be the case if someone hopped around on a Wal Mart. Both of these acts might be trespassing, but very different in it's effects on individuals.

You might want to consider it from a there-are-more-things-than-law-aspect :)

Andy Day's picture

I live in a forest, so not quite the best place to democratise the city... 😀

To understand more about what I'm discussing, might I suggest:

https://www.amazon.com/Rebel-Cities-Right-Urban-Revolution/dp/1781680744
https://www.amazon.com/Production-Space-Henri-Lefebvre/dp/0631181776

Adam Ehhhh's picture

I can honestly say that it will be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of you life.

Roger Morris's picture

I'm can only ponder the unthinking (now dead) photographers guts all over the street below, and the poor guy who has to go in there with a square scoop shovel, some extra-large sponges, and a couple of 5 gallon buckets in order to clean you up off the sidewalk.

If you're too selfish ... too stupid to think of continuing to live rather than tempting your demise, then please - think of the clean-up man.

Ralph Hightower's picture

The common phrase I hear about this is: YOLO. But as a friend and coworker once said "There is no reset button in life". I won't mourn your loss.

Ariel Martini's picture

"I once climbed 145m up the side of a building to take a photograph.. it was one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my life."

stopped reading

Andy Day's picture

That's a shame! Edgework has a lot to offer and many people would benefit from learning about it.

David Tressler's picture

Great post Andy.
I think most people (also the vast majority here) don't know and cannot make the distinction between the types of people that do this stuff.
We know the level of physical and mental skill that parkour and freerunning athletes have and how their minds work. Someone who has never been a part of that would find it immensely difficult to understand our decision making process.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks, David. Going by the comments, I think a lot of the nuances of what I was arguing are lost on many readers which is a bit frustrating. But that's just encouragement to try harder with my next article. 😀

Douglas Turney's picture

I think it is great that people push themselves to experience a rush or to expand themselves BUT don't do it illegally where your actions can impact others. These people who climb buildings illegally and then fall to their deaths impact others. What about the buildings security officers who might have to put themselves at risk because their job is to control what people do at that building? Or the people who have to respond to the death site, document what happened, clean the site, etc? Or the owner of the building that now has to answer questions of how the person got up there? Go get your rocks of with whatever rush you need but don't do it illegally and think your aren't impacting others.

rob renierd'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" This is pure BS, all you are doing is trying to justify your behaviour but the fact remains that in most cases what you are doing is illegal, there are laws of trespass, why do you think its ok to pick and choose which laws you want to obey, when you mention you once climbed 145m up a building you give the same sort of reasoning a illegal street racer would say by claiming that it was "one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my life" but what you both have in common is that you are a danger to yourselves and people around you, you are reckless, it doesn't matter how well trained you are when you are that high up a gust of wind could really ruin your day or the day of some unfortunate person who may be on the ground below you.

Any picture is not worth taking those sort of risks for, and taking a pic should never be an excuse for what is basically breaking the law, I guess a few youtube or instagram followers must be all you need to feed your ego, which is kinda sad really.

Seriously though, you should grow up while you still can.

Magnus Thors's picture

My photographer friend Lukasz does rooftop photography in Tokyo, although safely. https://www.lkazphoto.com/lappel-du-vide/

Deleted Account's picture

I've been to quite a few of those places but, honestly, think they look better from ground level. Horses for courses, I guess.

Jonas Karlsson's picture

When driving 60mph down a road without central barriers ur a tiny mistake away from a frontal collision every time you pass another car, tens of thousands die this way across the world every year. Yet when someone dangles their feet down a high story building, something which is incredibly safe people lose their minds.

Leif Hegdal's picture

I see that comparison as ludicrous - everyone who drives have training to do so. There are requirements for driver and car to make it safer, there are done large investments into safety on roads and car technology. The more you drive the more experience you have in making judgement calls. Driving a car doesn't give you likes in social media.

When it comes to climbing roofs and sitting on the edge most have no skill beside luck on their side. There are too many variables that come into play.

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