You’ve seen these type of photos time and time again, but the harrowing image of some brazen stripling teetering his or her legs over a ledge with an 800-foot drop below, somehow, strikes a chord with you. It’s not as simple as taunting death and accruing an insurmountable amount of likes on Instagram, but for some renowned urban explorers (“UrbEx” for short), spearheading spine-chilling experiences matters more than pandering to the masses for infamy. In fact, the roots of urban exploration go way back before cameras, social media networks and “selfies” were invented—for years, folks have traversed their way through train tunnels, alleyways, sewers and even ossuaries. Recently, more than ever, youths scale a skyscraper, slip pass security and run up to the rooftop to snag a shot—despite the increasing number of crackdowns by authorities, specifically the NYPD, who have amped up arrests since last April. Of course, we can dawdle in presumptions about the motives of these photo savvy urban explorers, but peering closely through the viewfinder of just one photographer may just change your mind.
Enter Brooklyn-based photographer Victor Thomas, who goes by the moniker Vic Invades on Instagram. Thomas is one to explore properties that have been either abandoned, forgotten or closed off to the general public. Capturing scenes full of intricate detail and light, this thrill-seeking surveyor of New York City subways, bridges and rooftops manages to hone his craft, albeit under the veil of darkness and out of sight from law enforcement. Moreover, Thomas has been featured in multiple major news outlets, such as The New York Times, CNN and Libération (France), for getting himself in places where he obviously shouldn’t be. Why does he do it? HYPEBEAST sat down with Thomas to get a more in-depth look as to why he knowingly puts himself in these hazardous situations.
How did you get into photography? Into urban exploration, specifically?
In theory, I’ve been into photography since kindergarten where I discovered my ability to transfer my visual information from the real world onto a canvas or paper—whether it was by painting or sketching. Being an artistic child sort of pulled me into the creative direction of grabbing a camera because I felt like I was meant to capture life differently—I was using an Olympus camera that my cousin left in the living room, I sort of stole it from her. I wanted everything to be instantaneous, so as I got older at the age of 16 my father bought me my first handy cam camera in 2009. I used the cam to shoot photos of my neighborhood and to help document me and my friends skateboarding, and then I would edit the images on Photobucket. After that, I obtained a PSP and attached a small camera onto it and started shooting with that. Not long after, I had a girlfriend who let me use her Fujifilm D3200 camera for a while and that’s when I discovered UrbEx as a way to actually get people to pay attention to my work. When I realized that I needed a better camera for the environments I would be exploring, my girlfriend at the time bought me my first DSLR camera in 2014—it was the Nikon D3200 which has a cropped sensor. That’s the camera that put me on the map.
What camera and lenses are you currently shooting with?
I’m currently using two cameras. I’m using my Canon 5D Mark II equipped with a Canon 24-105mm L lens most of the time now. I’m also using a Nikon D3200 with a Nikon 35mm lens and a Tamron 10-24mm wide angle.
Did you have any formal training in photography?
I never had any formal training with using a camera. I also went to school for video arts and technology when I attended BMCC, but didn’t get any hands-on knowledge on cameras, only book knowledge. I had to drop out because my family couldn’t afford to send me to school anymore although I wouldn’t mind going back.
Describe some of the most challenging situations you’ve encountered.
Being on buildings/being in tunnels is risky in general. One story I remember is being chased down 20 flights from the 60th floor in a midtown hotel and hearing the guard’s dress shoes scrambling down the stairs as me and my homie slid down the banister—using our hands to skip steps in order to increase our distance. I see a door, pull it open but when I turned around, I saw that some of the building workers ran through the doors and yelled at the guards, “They ran inside here!” After that altercation, my friend and I got off at the 40th floor, took the elevator and sprinted through the lobby, passed through the turnstile doors, and to freedom where my homie and I dapped hands.
Another story involves me being on the Manhattan bridge in the recent storm and as I’m getting a shot, I back up due to seeing a police car. I slipped through the ladder hole on the bridge with my hands mounted on the railing to avoid falling through the bridge walkway. At that point, I realized I’m not superhuman and I need to start taking precautions on every mission.
The most recent spot I’ve been to has to take the cake. It’s a 850-foot building with a spire that is 952 feet when included. When on top the spire you get the most breathtaking view of the Lower East Side, Midtown and Wall Street. You can also see Brooklyn, New Jersey and more. At first I was afraid to climb it because it was an isolated piece of steel in the windy sky that could potentially blow me off. After a good hour on the top of the building, my homie and I start to see incoming fog. When the fog rolled in, I instantly had to get a shot from above so I could share the perspective for the ones who weren’t there to experience it.
Do you ever hear shocking stories from other shooters and does it ever worry you?
I hear shocking stories from shooters everyday, but I tend to block it out. I’m actually at the point where I don’t care about the consequences because I actually love what I do. It’s in my nature to explore. It’s not in my nature to do it the way I do now, but until I get that deal where companies fly me out to legally do things, I’ll be right here #ontheroofs and exploring the underground.
What are your main motivations to continue shooting urban photography? Does Instagram have any affect on your inclinations to shoot?
I have a fear of being bored/stagnant so that motivates me go out and shoot. Also when it comes to Instagram, I actually do consider it a competition but it’s something I don’t partake in. Everything I do is for my own self gratification. I’m the one who sits at home and edits the shots with a smile on my face. Most of the kids who do it totally direct a competitive energy toward me and sometimes I respond by coming out of the blue with some heat. It’s nothing personal, just a reminder that I love this.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
Honestly, I’ve never really been inspired by a person. The only thing that inspired me was the possibility—to understand that hard work and consistency can actually benefit a person. I’ve seen some great things happen to people who just do what they’re suppose to do, whether it’s a good or bad choice. Also when it comes to influences, I can humbly say that Steve Duncan sort of enticed me to explore tunnels and scale buildings with my camera. Watching that UNDERCITY video definitely added more fuel to my reckless nature.
Describe the urban exploration scene right now.
The urban exploring scene is on a thin line. It’s at the point where everyone’s stunting their creativity/options with the same locations and I personally feel like I’ve been a victim of it at one point. The most a person can do is broaden their horizon and actually figure out a way to market themselves to the masses before everyone looks the same.
How do you differentiate yourself from other urban explorers?
I hate to say it, but being a black male photographer in NYC actually helps me stand out enough without me even trying. The fact that a random minority, Brooklyn kid, climbs bridges and buildings is absurd because in the public eye, I’m suppose to be playing basketball or wanting to become a rapper. All I can say is—urban photography is like a drug. It’s something that becomes addictive once you get that first dosage.
What are you currently working on now?
I’m working on a few projects that I can’t disclose at the moment. All I can say is be on the lookout for new content, #Invades.
- Victor Thomas/vic.Invades, Jaquan Cummings/quanatl
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