When British photographer James Kerwin landed in Beirut last April, he had already been researching Lebanon for more than a year. But rather than reading up on where to stay, what to eat and the top places to visit, he had been scouring the internet for photographs of empty buildings and working out where to find them. In the space of four weeks, Kerwin visited dozens of abandoned sites, recording the run-down railway stations in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley, crumbling Ottoman hammams and the auditorium of Beirut's captivating Grand Theatre. He captured the imposing staircases, ornate ceilings and peeling walls of decaying palaces and the vast empty halls of old hotels that are slowly falling into ruin.
The resulting series, A Paradise Lost, explores the pathos and beauty of these forgotten spaces through carefully composed images that convey the unique details and magical atmosphere of buildings marked by the ravages of time. Most are empty of furniture, making the architectural details the focal point.
"You can go into castles in France and they're packed full of stuff," Kerwin says. "In Lebanon that's not the case, but what they do have instead is the history, the beautiful, really striking architecture."
Particularly enamoured by the soaring triple arches found in traditional Ottoman-era mansions, Kerwin captured hidden spaces that have only started coming to light in the past few years, thanks to the work of artist and academic Gregory Buchakjian, who spent a decade documenting empty dwellings in Lebanon, as well as urban explorers who seek out long-forgotten spaces and post shots of the interiors on Instagram.
Kerwin is an architectural photographer who specialises in capturing hidden and decrepit structures. He first began taking pictures of deserted sites in the UK in 2013. Since 2018, he has made photography his full-time job and he currently travels around the world looking for spectacular subjects – particularly those that are off the beaten track.
"The whole genre has exploded, but I see myself as unique in that way," he says. "I don't really follow the trends. I try to look for countries that maybe are new, that people aren't going to that much and that would attract a bit of attention and be more interesting because I think the story is sometimes more interesting than just pictures." Indeed, the images piece together a forgotten story. In one of his images, Kerwin captures the space of a former synagogue, which is still intact enough to give a sense of what it once was. In another image inside a large abandoned mansion is a spiral staircase that Kerwin assumes could have been used during conflict.
As urban exploration – known as urbex – has grown in popularity over the past decade, particularly in Europe, and ruin photography has become mainstream, Kerwin says there is increasing competition to discover new places. He has produced series in the Caucasus and the Middle East, where local urbex communities are less established, selling prints of his work online.
He is now also offering photography tours to abandoned sites and says he is one of a few people to do so. By the time his four-week visit to Lebanon last year came to an end, he decided it would make a perfect destination for such a trip.
“We met a lot of people who gave us permission to enter places and that always makes for a good tour,” he explains. “If you’re taking photographers there you need some kind of safety net, you can’t just be climbing people’s garden walls. You need to be getting permission, getting keys – you need to do things properly.”
Kerwin's first workshop in Lebanon, scheduled for Saturday to Sunday, March 21 to 29, has already sold out. A second workshop is planned for the end of September. He also runs photography tours in Georgia and Armenia, but says Lebanon is ideal because it is small enough to allow his clients to stay in one place for nine days. He plans to take them to several of the abandoned sites that appear in his own photographs and to areas of natural beauty including the Baatara Gorge, a waterfall in Tannourine.
"In any other part of the world, that waterfall would be packed with photographers and tourists and you turn up and there's no one there. It's fantastic. That's a dream ticket for a photographer," he says. But Kerwin fears Lebanon might not stay free from hordes of curious travellers for long. Entering derelict buildings can lead to disaster, he says, when so many people make money visiting these sites.
Urbexers are often secretive about the locations of the buildings they discover and those who make a living capturing images of them even more so. Most of Lebanon's urbexers follow an honour system that demands they "take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints". But not everyone interested in such sites shares their scruples.
Kerwin says he avoids asking locals for help, instead using clues from images online to guess the structures' locations and then exploring until he finds them. He tries to prevent others from finding the locations through his own work and has even asked clients on his tour to sign waivers promising not to reveal the locations of the sites they visit.
Having witnessed the destruction of vacant buildings in Italy and Portugal and the defacement of a ruined village in Georgia by graffiti artists, he says it's inevitable that sites that attract attention will eventually be damaged. "The first person breaks in, for instance, in Europe, then the 15th person goes in and graffitis the place," he says. "That's just how it is because you've got graffiti artists following those kind of photographers. Lebanon hasn't got that yet, but it will happen there … Two people I know have already followed me and I've got people in the next few weeks, before my trip, who are planning to get there before me so that they can get photos."
Kerwin says the pattern of YouTubers, bloggers and graffiti artists flocking to ruins is a microcosm of what happens when a famous landscape photographer publishes an image taken in Iceland or Myanmar and inadvertently attracts crowds of Instagrammers and tourists to the spot.
“It’s the same thing in this genre as it is with travel,” he says. “Travel is more accessible now than it’s ever been and I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, really … People want something slightly different. They want to go to the place that another person’s gone to, but they’re always trying to better that other person. Instagram has created that culture. It’s not very nice, but it is what it’s created.”