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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.