image of an abandoned home with mirrors and columns

Behind the Scenes with Andrew Emond

The Toronto-based photographer has taken Instagram by storm with his strange and haunting images of abandoned interiors. Here’s exactly how he does it.

Toronto-based photographer Andrew Emond has been shooting the interiors of abandoned homes on his smartphone for years, resulting in images that form a surreal mix of nostalgia, horror, and beauty that has captured the attention of way more than just the neighbors next door. Emond’s photos move beyond the aesthetic decay of typical “ruin porn”, to speak to his 17 thousand Instagram followers on psychological and existential levels. 

“I’m always intrigued by [people’s] responses,” Emond explains. “For me, it’s like a pendulum that swings back and forth between peacefulness, order, and chaos. I think even the most minimal spaces can have tension to them and I’m very much interested in that order versus disorder and how those two things manifest in a living state.”

Fragmented mirrors and wall cutouts challenge viewers’ perceptions of reality while peeling wallpaper and floral curtains hint at the ephemerality of interior design trends. Red handprints on a wall evoke horror movie set design, while piles of rubble pose the question: What happens to all of our stuff when we’re gone? 

image of a bed with a floral bedspread
image of a room with fragmented mirrors and wallpaper

Leilah Stone: What drew you to documenting abandoned interiors?

Andrew Emond: In 2004, digital photography was starting to become a bit of a thing, so I rekindled my interest in taking photos again but nothing in Toronto at the time really spoke to me. But then I stumbled across this phenomenon called urban exploration, which involves people recreationally trespassing—It could be abandoned places, sewer systems, any areas that are off-limits to the general public. And I went full tilt with that ever since both aboveground and underground, I was really exploring the possibilities of where I could go in the city without permission. I was also pretty interested in exploring industrial spaces and basically a lot of abandoned places that have since been torn down.

Over the years, I’ve transitioned towards more domestic spaces. And that’s because a lot of those larger places, factories, manufacturing facilities are no longer around, or they’re harder to access in general. Real estate in Toronto is crazy. The tiniest of houses will sell for millions of dollars, simply because it’s on a piece of land that’s valuable. Places get sold and then they become vacant. Sometimes for just a few weeks before they get torn down. Other places will sit there for a year or more, and that’s where I come in. My current practice involves getting into those places, and figuring out how to do it without getting permission.

planter arranged inside home with floor covered in leaves

What do you do once you’ve made it inside the home?

There’s a mental checklist that I apply to each property to figure out, first of all, is it actually empty? [In the past] I would drive around the city and look for tell-tale signs of the places that were either abandoned and that changes depending on what season is it is. Right now there’s a fair amount of snow on the ground, and we had a snowstorm a couple of weeks ago, so driveways that haven’t been plowed, are a pretty good sign that nobody’s there now at least. But then you have to look beyond the driveway. You have to look at the footprints going to the door. Are the footprints from the person delivering the mail or from somebody who lives there? What is the process going to look like to get inside? Do I have to be mindful of the neighbors living next door? Am I going to be able to do it by myself? Do I need a friend to help me out? That’s one part of the process that I really enjoy, the problem-solving. I also scour real estate listings and look through properties that are being sold as-is and I also use big data from the city to look at what properties have demolition permits in place.

And then the other half of it is what happens when I’m inside. And interiors, for me, are these places that I have to myself, where I can explore the possibilities of what that space can become, either through my own actions or the forces of decay or vandalism. For me, I just never get tired of walking into a room and either being excited by how it is, or by what I can do to the space to put my own spin on it.

floral wallpaper in abandoned bathroom

Are you ever afraid of getting caught?

I feel like it’s like a muscle that I need to keep in shape. It’s like I have to keep doing it to be able to have the nerve to do the things I do. If I stop doing it for a month and start getting a bit more anxious or I start overthinking it. The places I go to are often just a few feet away from neighbors’ houses. I’m trotting off, trying to be discreet, but sometimes I’m going into the backyard and looking around the windows and things. It’s like there’s a bit of a performance to it. I don’t want it to appear as though I’m a thief so it’s almost like trying to be invisible, and at the same time, knowing if somebody sees you, they’re not going to think anything of you.

I’ve had a few close calls. There have been a handful of times where I stepped into a place that I was 80 percent sure [it’s vacant]. And I haven’t had a bad confrontation, but I have heard someone else in the house or, somebody yells out something. And I just had to run off.

How long do you spend in each house for a shoot?

Some places I’m in and out of in a few minutes, especially if there’s an alarm system, like an active alarm system. There are ways for me to test that a little bit in advance. Set off an alarm and then you run off, and then you wait to see if anyone returns. But yeah, in some places it’s 10 to 15 minutes if it’s high risk. It really depends on the space, but not a long time.

For better or worse, I shoot everything with my phone. So that enables me to shoot quickly. I don’t have to deal with camera gear. I’m at the point now where I can walk into a place, have a quick look around and be pretty certain if it’s going to work or not work. And if I feel like it’s not going to work, then I might spend a bit more time, making an intervention in the space using materials that are already there.

heaps of books and trash inside an abandoned home

How do you approach the arrangement of materials and objects within a space?

When I’m not intervening somehow, it’s because the space is already strange enough on its own—the room’s doing all the work for me. The rearrangement and the construction part of it come into play and I move objects around in the room, creating different juxtapositions. There are no limits to what I do in the spaces, sometimes it’s taking the mirrors and curtains off the walls…there was a period where I was starting little fires or using spray paint.

For me, there’s a perfect zone where the end photo is a combination of strange [interior architecture], people’s belongings, and then the things that I’ve added to turn things on their heads. That line between someone else’s private, personal space and my own point of view come together to create some sort of cohesive photo where it isn’t clear what I did. For me, that feels like a good photo. And then there are moments where I’ll just make my own little reality—doing things like angle mirrors together to create a Cubist arrangement. I like the idea of completely fragmenting the room and mirrors are a good way to do that.

Your work explores the relationship between interiors, belongings, and waste in a very visceral way. Is this something you’re actively thinking about?

When a place goes up for sale, if it’s a house that’s still in good condition and the agent thinks that somebody might buy and keep as is, they’ll often renovate that house a little bit. They’ll do the staging and make it look all spic and span, but it’s still a bungalow from the 1970s. And that’s not a style of housing that’s very popular anymore, at least in Toronto. So, people will spend maybe a hundred thousand dollars to renovate a house to make it look nice. This involves changing the styles of the decor and kitchens, etc. And then, six months later, there are demolition permits in place. I think about where all that stuff ends up when a house gets torn down—it doesn’t seem like any of it really gets recycled.

Aside from construction materials, just the personal belongings that get left in people’s homes…I’ve walked into places that are time capsules essentially, and things never get retrieved. And I’m always intrigued by why that happens. I mean, sometimes it’s obvious, people died and maybe the family doesn’t live in Canada anymore, or nobody wants to deal with it. The stuff isn’t valuable to anyone, even sentimentally or financially—things you would think have sentimental value. It’s a mystery.

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