We sat down with, our friend, artist and photojournalist Seph Lawless for The Latest from Lawless blog to learn more about his work and the process of creating it.
Tell us a little about the meaning behind your compelling work.
I wanted Americans to see what was happening to America from the comfort of their suburban homes and smartphones, showing parts of the country people weren’t focused on. I decided the best way to show that would be through the artistic medium of the photograph, digital photography, shared across popular social media platforms.
Capturing the images was part one. The second, more important, part was being able to share those images on a global scale. It was all very social media-driven early on, before the press started reporting on me. It has to be compelling, it has to be moving to make an impact. That’s the constant struggle when you’re an artist on social media. It has to be captivating, just to hold the attention of the audience for a brief few moments.
How did you begin to become fascinated with abandonment and ruin here in America, and beyond?
Early on, I would travel on family vacations once a year. We couldn’t afford to fly so we drove across the country. As a kid, I’d gaze out the window at the Rust Belt. So much of that region suffered over the past 50 years with population loss and the loss of manufacturing jobs. I saw a lot of that as kid – abandoned factories, abandoned schools, ghost towns – and I was always fascinated about it. At 10 or 11 years old, I asked myself: Why is this happening? Who were the people there? Why did they leave?
I wanted to find out more about that but it wasn’t until later that I went out to explore, once I was old enough to go out and do it. I learned two things fairly quickly: 1. Some of these places weren’t all the way abandoned. You still had some of the poorest, more disenfranchised Americans living there, and 2. All of these places had fascinating stories. An untold chapter of American history. Something you could never read about in a book or see in a movie. That moved me, and it motivated me to share it.
I very quickly went from taking pictures because I was documenting this from behind the lens, to dropping the camera and talking to people, getting emotionally invested. That led to my passion to share what I had seen and heard.
How did your pseudonym, Seph Lawless, first come about?
It started out as a Social Media handle. I didn’t think too much of it when I started out on Instagram in 2011. It reflects some of the trespassing that I was doing. Early on, it kept what I was doing in the media (Inside Edition, The Guardian) separate from other parts of my life.
Once my photos began to get attention among the most popular Instagram images, alongside Justin Bieber and Khloe Kardashian, it was giving me a global reach and the media picked it up. They’re reporting the name “Seph Lawless,” “Seph Lawless.” At that point, there was nothing I could have done even if I wanted to. It spread a lot quicker than I thought it would.
What do you bring with you when you visit an abandoned mall, amusement park or ghost town?
I usually travel light with a weekender bag. I take my main camera, with a few different lenses, and a tripod. I usually take my drone that shoots 4K video. I also have a 360 video camera that the Weather Channel gave me. I’ll set it up for a minute or two, allowing you to see everything from my vantage point. I’ll definitely take my iPhone – you’ve got 4K on the 7 Plus now. Some Lawless Jerky and bottled water.
What are some the wildest experiences you’ve had out in the field?
I’ll often come across a derelict or a homeless person living in a place. That’s always awkward. So you just kind of respect that. There have been times when it could have turned violent if those people had felt threatened, but luckily it hasn’t because I’m good at dealing with those situations. It’s important just to talk to people with a lot of respect.
One time, I was shooting this abandoned theater. Very dark in there. When I get home, I’m editing the pictures, lightening them a little bit. It was only then that I saw a shadow in the picture. It was someone watching me. It was eerie—someone was that close to me and I had no idea. That always weighs on you when you’re in these places: Who’s in there? Are you being watched, and is it a threat?
It sounds like you need a particular set of skills, to do what you do.
There are a variety of little things that I’ve learned, over the years, to look out for. You’ll see people will break glass on the stairs as a signal if someone approaches. Sometimes doors are rigged [with booby traps]. There have been places I’ve shot that have been used by serial killers to torture and kill victims in my hometown of Cleveland. Horrible things happen in abandoned places sometimes.
What are your favorite Lawless Jerky flavors?
I’ve always liked jerky because it’s lightweight, and it keeps you satisfied no matter the circumstance. But I’m really picky. I’ll buy some jerky but then I won’t like the flavor, or the texture. So I was really happy to find Lawless.
If I got stuck somewhere, and this could have happened several times, at least I’d have something to eat. That’s why I carry it. It’s a survival thing for me. I could break my leg. A door slams, and I get stuck in a room. Crazy things happen in my line of work so it’s imperative I have it with me. I throw it in my bag and off I go.