Australian photographer Shane Thoms is a modern explorer.
Unlike explorers in the traditional sense, Thoms isn’t looking to go places no one has been before. He’s an urban explorer – “urbex”- which means he’s more interested in places many, many humans have trod before – and walked away from.
Recently, Thoms’s work gained attention after he returned from a week exploring the ruins of the iconic AIR studios on Monserrat. By pure coincidence, he was photographing the crumbling remains in the very same week the man who built it, legendary Beatles producer George Martin, died.
Thoms admits he wasn’t aware of the studio’s legacy as the birthplace of some of the greatest rock ‘n roll albums of all time.
“I just have a fascination with abandonment,” he said.
The abandoned Japanese resort
Thoms says this was “one of the creepiest” places he’d ever explored. “I felt like I’d stepped into a twisted dark fairy tale (or a Tim Burton film set).”
It was thriving in the 70s and 80s as the “Hawaii of Japan”, but the economic bust in the 90s saw it shut down forever.
“It’s always exciting and exhilarating to open a closed abandoned hotel room door – you never know what you’re going to find on the other side.”
There’s an element to part of what he does that requires Thoms to push his luck. Some of the places he’s interested are locked up for various reasons regarding public safety or commercial interest. Nearly every shot on his stunning Instagram account is littered with comments from people begging him to reveal where his photos are taken.
“I don’t reveal a lot of locations for preservation reasons,” Thoms said. “And also there are some places where I go where I’ve accessed them illegally, where if I get found in there I could get into a lot of trouble.”
Yes, Thoms went there. Back in 2012, where he explored the town of Prypiat and the decay of 26 years since the Chernobyl Reactor No 4 exploded and shot 6.7 tonnes of radioactive material into the air.
Prypiat was the main city of residence for the reactor’s workers and their families. Here you can see thousands of gas masks left on the floor of Chernobyl secondary college:
Thoms has a Bachelor of Design from Monash, majoring in photography.
In real life he works in a cinema and an equestrian centre and when he has enough money he’ll “just take off and do a cheap kind of project.”
Haikyo means “ruins” in Japanese. Thoms first caught the urbex bug from a book about haikyo and has visited Japan and established several key contacts who point him towards the country’s spectacular decaying past.
“It’s also an aesthetic that provides a beautiful dystopian visual,” Thoms said of his work.
“It kind of raises questions regarding humanity’s impact on the environment and views on population and space, and I think it’s interesting to observe a human space without it being eclipsed by movement.”
Theme parks are the mother lode for urbex photographers. Thoms actually stumbled on this Wild West park on the way to another job.
It was built in 1975 and closed in 2007.
“Bags of rice and sugar remained in the large pantry and cooking utensils still sat on the sinks and kitchen benches.”
It was built in 1961 and was hugely popular, but enthusiasm for Nara Dreamland waned when Tokyo Disney Sea and Osaka’s Universal Studios opened in later years.
Despite being closed in 2006, guards still patrol the perimeter of Nara Dreamland. Thoms risked a $10,000 fine if he got caught. Still…
“We found park memorabilia (still sitting on the shelves) and boxes of stock lying opened on the floors amongst broken glass.”
The small island of Gunkanjima sits about 15km south of Nagasaki. Once a thriving coalmining base, its last owner, Mitsubishi, closed the plant in 1974.
Thoms says Gunkanjima is “definitely the most amazing vision of modern decay I’ve ever experienced”.
It was recently granted a UNESCO World Heritage listing and a small section of the island is open to the public when conditions permit.
Thoms and four mates snuck onto Gunkanjima for a night, setting up camp in a classroom.
“In the basement of one housing complex we found the remains of what was once the islands hairdressing salon. Sitting in darkness since 1974, its rusting chairs and hair dryers still remained moderately intact.”
Thoms said he finds the places purely through “a lot of research”.
If you want to know more about Japanese urbex photography, he recommends buying the books that ignited his passion at Hakkaku Culture Union.
“There’s beauty in the melancholy,” he said. “It’s a new thing, there’s such an obsession with abandoned places because we’re such a populated planet, we’re now obsesses with what we’re leaving behind.”