Seph Lawless is an artist, political activist, and photojournalist, but Seph Lawless doesn’t exist. It’s a pseudonym. No one knows what his real name is, and that’s how he wants it.
Although you may not know his name, his work is probably familiar. Lawless specialises in portraying the abandoned; he finds his way into places that others have forgotten and brings images of those places to light.
Many of Lawless’ images have been viral sensations over the years, as he’s made a name for himself photographing abandoned theme parks, decaying cities and urban wastelands. I spoke to him about his work and why he does what he does.
“When I was really young traveling on family vacations I would stare out the back window of the car seeing some of these abandoned places and became fascinated with them,” he says. “I wanted to know more about them. Who lived there? Why did they end up this way?”
Those abandoned landscapes spurred him to create ‘Autopsy of America’, an ongoing project that aims to show the ‘left behind’ of America, whether that means locations or individuals. He has photographed a number of different abandoned sites, such as post-Katrina New Orleans, multiple abandoned shopping malls and even pet cemeteries, but his most talked-about project was a shoot in a forgotten Disney World.
When I asked him about which projects had affected him most, he focused on that one. “I knew shooting the abandoned Disney World would be controversial,” says Lawless, “I knew Disney would come after me, but I became sick to my stomach seeing what I saw during that project.” The park is Disney’s River Country in Florida, which opened in 1976 but was abandoned in 2001. In the years since its closure, it has been partially reclaimed by nature, giving the park a striking, unique look.
“Keep in mind that nature shouldn’t have to take over anything that man created,” Lawless explains. “Mother Nature only struggles to do that when she has no other choice. The multibillion dollar corporation’s decision was based solely on greed with complete disregard to nature and the existing wildlife in the area.”
Former park employees in the area reportedly told Lawless that high levels of toxicity can now be found in the lakes within the park, owing to nightly firework shows and leakage from Disney boats. Lawless hopes to raise awareness of these kinds of environmental abuses by big corporations, and found that photography was the perfect medium to spread his message. “Sometimes words aren’t enough, so I started taking pictures,” he says.
Lawless’ work has proved to be extremely popular, and has been featured on Vice, CNN, FOX News, NBC News and ABC News. The Guardian ranked its article on the abandoned Disney park among its most popular stories for 2014. His images appear to resonate very deeply with people. “I think it’s nostalgic in some cases,” he says. “Other times, people just see beauty in these ancient ruins similar to the ruins of Ancient Greece.”
Although he’s always been a Nikon fan, he is now beginning to experiment with different technologies for filming and photographing the locations that interest him the most. “I’m currently testing a prototype of an amazing drone by Autel Robotics that takes amazing video and images,” he says. “I’m also using 360 video for a media company that will be sharing that content on their site very soon.”
He’s expanding his projects beyond still imagery, he revealed. “I’m currently filming a reality show for a major US network where I’m the host and take the viewers around the world on the journeys I go on. It is expected to air worldwide and date will be announced in the near future.”
His forays into abandoned and forgotten America will continue, and I can’t wait to see what he finds.