“Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis
In Youth & Urban Decay, photographer Christopher Ryan captures the beauty of youth set against the backdrop of crumbling, abandoned structures. There is a stark contrast in the passage of time represented in the series – the hopefulness at the beginning of life meets the untold stories of a time that has passed. The boys and girls whose portraits are featured are the stars of the show, while the decaying structures are given one last chance to shine.
This work is a continuation of an earlier self-portrait series Christopher set in abandoned places. As the artist realized his body was beginning its own timeline of “urban decay,” he decided it was time for his work to evolve. Environmental portraits of children are another area of photography he is passionate about. The inspiration to combine the two fascinating subjects was born from there.
The models in this series are not professionals, however, as much as possible parents are present and the models are compensated for their time. Minimal direction is given to the kids, and often they are left to create their own poses or simply play and explore the locations of the shoots. A good example is the two boys at the abandoned amusement park in Yangon, pushing an old Viking ship back and forth. Their own playfulness resulted in one of my favorite shots of the series.
Youth & Urban Decay is Christopher Ryan’s longest-running series, which started with a shoot in Chiangmai, Thailand in 2016. Since then, he has shot all over Thailand as well as Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia, Colombia, Turkey, and the United States. He expects this project to continue for many years.
The People and Places
Paulina – 15 Year old Boxer in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Paulina is an amazing teen girl of mixed Italian & Latin American ethnicity living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She trains at Black Dog Boxing. Check out the full gallery and story here.
Boy with Abs in Abandoned Mansion in Bangkok
No is a 14 year old fighter in Bangkok, Thailand. Check out the full gallery and story here.
The Boy in the Abandoned Airplane
There is a place in Bangkok near Ramkamheang Soi 100 called the airplane graveyard. The yard consists of an abandoned 747, two MD-82s, and other assorted airplane pieces. Several families live in the fuselages of the abandoned planes and apparently make their living by charging admission to curious minded people interested in making selfies in the graveyard. One of the youngest Boys is named Pete. He is 7 years old and joined me for a photoshoot in his back yard. If you plan to visit it is best to go on weekends and be prepared to pay 200 baht or you can take photos from the sidewalk outside of the compound. Most of the people living there do not seem to be particularly friendly.
Jakarta Friends at Abandoned Bank in Jakarta, Indonesia
The photo-shoot in Jakarta marks the 9th shoot for this project and the 4th country. The project is very challenging due to language barrier, short times for location scouting, and model recruitment. I was lucky to have met Endah via CouchSurfing weeks in advance who helped with all of the above. She visited families that she knew and of those willing to participate, sent me snapshots of about 6 kids. Those chosen were Ian (10), Rasheed (10), and Felisa (11).
We did not find a building that had the true abandoned look that I wanted, but we did find a bank that has been abandoned for about 30 years in the Blok M area of Jakarta. As is typical with SE Asian abandoned buildings, there is a family living in the first floor and they have a set rate of a couple of dollars per person to enter for any purpose. Including myself, Endah, the models, and parents, we had 7 people so we negotiated the price down a bit. Basically the parents got in free.
Muay Thai Boys at Abandoned Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand
This project was a very fun collaboration with South African artist Mariska Botes. Mariska is a very talented sketch artist, who happens to love working with children. Our concept was to let Mariska complete the outline and primary details on a chalk drawing of two teen Muay Thai boys fighting. This drawing came from one of my images from this same project with Hart and Tor at the abandoned village in Bang Na. After that, we shot photos of the younger boys Bill (9) and Pluck (11) as they added some color and other detail to the drawings. They are shown in their Muay Thai shorts completing the drawing.
The venue is an abandoned hotel in Bang Khen, north of Bangkok in the suburbs. There are a couple of squatters that live in the ground level. The building has a “secret room” that was once used to offer gambling and prostitution to the hotel guests. However, the building is in a area that is very prone to flooding during the rainy season and that rooms stays full of water. That, along with parking problems led to the demise of this very interesting structure.
Tar at Abandoned Hotel in Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane is the capital of Laos and is completely lacking in abandoned buildings. I found three total. One appears to have been an apartment building on the river front, which now has a shipping container turned bar shoved right up against the front of it. This isn’t as bizarre as it first sounds – even in countries like the US, shipping containers are being utilised as buildings like bars and restaurants. Construction companies like BMarko specialise in these modular units and they are actually growing in popularity across the world. The second was an old house with severely collapsed roof. The third is a fairly large three story hotel very near to Patuxay Park. According to a squatter living on the bottom floor it has been empty for nearly 3 decades. Much of the original furniture is still inside many of the rooms. The bed frames have all been collected and are sitting in one of the large rooms (maybe restaurant) on ground level. It is a wonderful place for a photoshoot.
My Lao friend suggested finding what he called pity kids for this project. I generally prefer to get adult permission for this project, but I was running out of time so we went with his suggestion. Pity kids is his way of saying children that sell small things for money on the streets. We met Ta, an adorable and very sweet 13 year old boy at the main bus station downtown. He is 13 years old and sells chewing gum to make a living. He sells about $5.00 worth per day but has to split the money 50/50 with the man that provides the gum. He was a natural model and most of the poses he did entirely on his own. I am looking forward to visiting him again on a future visit.
Pepsi at Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang Plateau, Laos
Since most of my research indicated I would have any trouble finding abandoned buildings in Laos, I had this place in mind as a backup. Technically, the “jars” at Plain of Jars are abandoned structures. These date back to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500) and are believed to be artifacts of prehistoric burial rituals. There are 90 of these sites around this region with the stone jars numbering from 1 to 400.
The model, Pepsi (I’m really sure that is not his real name) came from a nearby school that teaches english to very poor village children. I met a guide via facebook that arranged for him as well as some other boys I worked with the following day at a waterfall.
The nearest town is Phonsavan and it actually has an airport. It is for sure the smallest airport I’ve ever been to but it has convenient flights to and from Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
James and Do at Abandoned Nightclub in Luang Prabang, Laos
I searched high and low for abandoned buildings in Laos. I asked many sources. Everyone said there was no such thing and also warned me that I would get in trouble for taking photos of kids. On my last day in Luang Prabang I saw something interesting on a map. It was a big space that said something unusual, so I decided to go see what it was. It turned out to be a large wooden building built up over a lotus pond. An old man tending chickens nearby said it was a nightclub built when the French occupied Laos. I was stunned at the beauty of it. Made completely of wood, much of which had rotted away and the remainder quited warped & bleached.
But where to find kids? Lo and behold two beautiful boys were sitting on a porch nearby. My local friend and I went up and asked a girl on the porch if the mother was home. A lady appeared at the door and we explained the project. She said “sure you can take them.” So we led the two boys followed by about 4 neighborhood girls to the site and proceeded to shoot. One of the boys was a real natural at posing. Upon completion I proudly showed the “mother” the photos. I was surprised that she did not seem impressed so I asked about it. She simply said “oh those aren’t my boys, they were just in my yard when you came up!”
Muay Thai Girls at Abandoned Highrise in Bangkok, Thailand
Tang Tang and Tip (each 12 years old) were the models at a very exciting location, an abandoned high rise building on the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. They train at the same boxing gym as the Hart and Tor (shown next). The location was appropriately called Bangkok Youth Club Condominium and came complete with helicopter pad, gymnasium, lounges, and creepy rooftop areas.
Hart and Tor at Abandoned Bang Phli Village in Bangkok, Thailand
Hart and Tor (15 years old) are amazing models who are passionate about their boxing career. They train at an outdoor gym in a very poor area of Bangkok (subject of another project). Hart’s big thoughtful eyes say a lot about him. The abandoned village is just as fascinating. There are nearly 50 buildings, most of them are complete as far as drywall though a few only have partial structures. Each building is six stories tall.
Burmese Boys at Abandoned Happyland Amusement Park in Yangon, Myanmar
Happyland is a great place for urban explorers. There are plenty of full size rides and it is fairly accessible. The boys came from a neighboring village on the opposite side of the Yangon River. Though Yangon is one of the major cities of Myanmar and the boys only live across the bridge, they had never visited the city before. The boys’ parents nominated a local man to ride with us to ensure the safety of the boys and the adult also had never been across the bridge! The kids had never in fact ridden in a car before. Read more about this experience in my blog post.
Thai Boy at Abandoned Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand
This was my first shoot for Youth and Urban Decay. Chiang Mai has so many abandoned places to chose from, but the huge ghost hotel was not too far from city center and has an interesting story about some people that died there when it first opened 30 years ago. Benz was my 10 year old model. It is difficult to find children to take into such places as their parents are scared sick of ghosts. The very idea freaks them out. However, Benz was raised as a Christian rather than Buddhist. I asked if he was afraid and he said “no, I’ll sleep here by myself tonight!” But what amazed me the most about Benz is when I asked what he would do with the modeling fee. He said he would put it in the box at his school for poor people. I politely reminded him that he was poor himself and he replied “yes but there are people even more poor than me.”
Future Shoots Planned for Youth and Urban Decay
- Abandoned castle near Hamburg, Germany – boy and girl in pajamas
- Abandoned mansion in Singapore – boy in suit & tie
- Abandoned water park in Vietnam – twin boys at top of twin waterslides
- Abandoned muslim hospital in Yangon – boy in hospital gown
- Abandoned shopping center in Bangkok – boy performing on gymnastics rings
- Abandoned building in Bangkok – two Muay Thai Boxing girls fighting, posing, training
Assistance & Modeling Information
I am always looking for the following:
- Leads for locations
- Models to shoot on location
- English speaking driver
- English speaking assistant to direct models
- Stylist to help pose the models
A fair fee is paid to anyone helping me on an hourly basis which is based on the local economy. I am not able to pay professional agency day rates for models, nor do I really want to work with professional models. Also I cannot pay a fee for location leads. If you are interested in helping please contact me with this link.