All the strength of Jeroen Van Dam’s shots is based on an assumption that may seem strange: the real frontier lands, the most difficult to explore, are the cities where we live. Just over 40 years old, trained as an architect but soon devoted to urban design, the Dutch photographer discovered his passion in 2014, during a tour in the Amsterdam Metro. The visual potential of those places immediately strikes him. Having bought his first camera and convinced a friend, Jeroen threw himself into his new vocation and let himself be completely absorbed by it. Rotterdam, his city, offers itself to him like a show that finally takes the curtain off. And behind the curtains, there are tunnels, towers, and, above all, adventure. Jeroen soon comes into contact with other urban explorers. Taking a photo means risking being caught, risking falling, but also making new friends, feeling part of a small group of elected daredevils, seeing the city as no one has ever seen it. It’s an underground movement that emerges on social media, whose members meet without ever having seen each other before, sharing their secret corners and looking over each other’s shoulders. A movement that is enjoying its first successes, not to mention the selection of Jeroen’s shots on the World Photography Award shortlist. The aim is to leave everything as it was found, without altering anything, but showing what usually remains hidden. What’s at stake is showing the city in a new light, and often demystifying great modern architecture, as Jeroen explains in his interview.

1) Who are you, what do you do in your life and how did you start as a photographer?

My name is Jeroen van Dam, and I live in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. I was trained as an architect and I designed buildings for a few years. I started photography in 2014 quite suddenly when one of my friends lent me his DSLR camera to try out. Shortly after we went to Hong Kong together, one of the best places to practice and experiment with photography. Since then I was hooked. At the same time I found out I was much more intrigued by cities than architecture, so I quit my job to mainly focus on cities: as an urban designer and photographer. I got obsessed with urban life, so I started traveling to major cities all over the world. My camera became my main tool to record all the wonders that I found. I never had any training, but experimenting and trying everything helped to improve my photography over time.

2) In the presentation of your shortlisted project on World Photo, you explain that you like to follow urban explorers. Tell us something about it.

Urban exploration is usually defined as visiting lost and abandoned places like old houses and factories. However, for me urban exploration is more about discovering the secrets of cities, especially dodgy man-made areas that ‘normal people’ tend to avoid. Those places are usually hidden, but also quite often right in the middle of everything; places like technical rooms, rooftops, tunnels, or sewers. As it turned out, there are people all over the world – mostly young – who venture into those places, because they are curious and adventurous. Interestingly enough, most of them are photographers and their goal is to capture those locations before they are lost forever. As I dived deeper and deeper into the secrets of the city, I became one of them. I started following urban explorers all over the world to document their – and now mine – adventures.

3) Being an urban explorer looks like being part of a secret society. How could you find your crew?

It sometimes does feel like a secret society. I often use Instagram to get in touch with people who I admire or who go to interesting locations. But people get in touch with me as well, because it’s a small community. Strangers became friends and now we go on missions together. It’s a matter of trust: we need to have the same interests and mindset to make it work. But somehow that is usually not that hard, since we already have the same weird passion for the dark side of the city. There is a trade: usually an exchange of knowledge and inspiration, and of course it’s also about having a good time. There are non-written rules about urban exploration. One of the most important rules is that we like to leave a place as we find it: ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.’

4) Is risk a part of the job? Why is it so thrilling?

Yes, it is part of the job. Over time I learned how to deal with dangers. I’ve trained my body so I am able to climb and reach difficult locations. I know what I can and cannot do. Still, I am very much aware of the dangers so it’s very important to always be careful. There are risks involved in accessing these locations (not getting caught is one of them), and you have to realize they are off-limits for a reason.

5) Why is it important to show our cities in this way?

I think you appreciate your own city much more if you know how it works. I like to show places that people find unattractive, or never bothered to enjoy. Or show them a well-known place in a different way, so people are put on the wrong track. One time I took a picture of what might be the ugliest building in my city, but because of the unusual angle lots of people started to like it. And sometimes I get comments from people who live right around the corner, but never realized what was hidden right under their noses. I feel satisfied when because of my work, people start looking around more carefully and appreciate the city they live in better. Also, exploring and photography helps me to analyze cities, which I then use in my work as an urban designer – and vice versa.

6) Some of your shots seem to present a steampunk aesthetic. What are your main references?

That was never my intention, but I see the similarities. My photos are usually set in an industrial scene, dark, with artificial lighting, bright colors and often one lost soul in shaggy clothes. So yeah, I guess I am very much inspired by sci-fi, fantasy, and steampunk like movies, series, and photography. I usually watch them not for the story but for set design lol. Probably architecture is a reference too, since I learned to love (and later hate) large and modern buildings.

7) Most of your pictures are under or above the ground. We don’t see the streets, we don’t see the crowd. Why’s that?

The streets and crowds are always close, I just like to hide just out of view: underground or on rooftops. When you are underground in tunnels there are no lights or sounds coming from above. For me that is a way to unwind the buzz of the city. On the contrary, when you are high up on a rooftop, it’s like you experience the city 100 times more: the wide views, the noises, the lights: they make you feel so alive. Photography is only half of the story: the experience of actually being in that place is what makes it so great to be an urban explorer. The photos show an alternative world of the one you think you know – but closer than you realize.

8) In your pictures, high, modern buildings look like the perfect scenography, or they are something more to you?

As an architect, I’ve always been drawn to high, modern buildings, especially if they are dark and sinister looking. Funny thing is that in my job as an urban designer I learned to mistrust modern architecture: no

matter how cool they look on photos, they often don’t contribute to good city life. So, there is a big contradiction between what I look for in cities as a photographer, and what I want a city to look like when I live there. I guess my own city Rotterdam gives me the best of both worlds.

9) In your words, how would you describe your style?

Over time I developed a style that people recognize me for, although that was never a purpose – it just happened. My photos are often a combination of dark, moody tones and then one vivid color. Also, composition is key, I always try to find the best angle to show the subject. There are a few things that you usually find in my pictures, like leading lines and the rule of thirds. And finally, I like to have one person in the photo: small and vulnerable in a big and hostile space, as if he or she doesn’t belong there.

10) What are you going to explore next?

I always have plans for new missions and travels. But because of the times we are living in right now, it is uncertain what I will explore next or where I will go, since I cannot leave the country. I will probably explore my own city to find some new angles or places.

11) What is the question you hoped for and that I didn’t pose? What’s your answer?

Well maybe not hoped for. But the question I get the most is: ‘Where is that?’ Part of urban exploration is that you don’t speak of the whereabouts of the locations you visit. The reason for that is that those places might be vulnerable to people who have bad intentions. Quite often they are dangerous to visit too, or forbidden. Also, for me researching locations before I visit them is one of the things I love most. It’s such a thrill to find something yourself. So, I want to encourage people to look around them more carefully so they can find hidden places themselves.

12) Tell us 3 young photographers we should follow

@freed_o_gram (Paris)

@rafaelwien (Vienna)

@imix2x (Madrid)