Fancy climbing skyscrapers without safety gear and then taking photos? Neither do we. But for Russian photographer Ivan Kuznetsov, these unparalleled views of Moscow are his favourite subject to shoot. He explains his love for rooftopping photography and how he gets his extreme images.
Which came first: climbing or photography?
I got into climbing at an early age. Over the years, I started pushing myself to climb more extreme objects and heights. When I started climbing buildings is the point when I decided to start taking pictures. I did this mostly to share these experiences with my friends.
With encouragement from my friends, I started to post some of my pictures on the internet, and immediately people started sharing and commenting on my work. Russian media also grew interested in my photos and soon started buying them. I wasn’t expecting that response at all!
I think the rooftopping phenomenon has become so popular because people like to look at dizzying shots like mine. What makes photographs unique is their ability to capture reality from perspectives we’ve not seen before, and I think that’s why people are drawn to my images.
Also, we do what we do without ropes or harnesses – and without insurance – so there’s also an element that scares people as much as it delights them.
What camera equipment do you bring, and what settings do you use?
I don’t carry much with me, so I can stay as light as possible. I shoot with a Canon EOS 600D and have three lenses: a Sigma 8-16mm, a Canon 55-250mm telephoto zoom and my 18-55mm kit lens.
The other things I carry are special tools that help me penetrate the roof of some buildings. I can’t describe these in any more detail though, because it’s against the law to use them!
As for settings, I always shoot in raw. I use Aperture Priority mode, with the aperture usually set at f/7.1 to get a fast enough shutter speed. I usually set the ISO between 100 and 400, depending on the conditions.
How do you carry your camera as you climb?
This is an area where I differ from many photographers. I carry my camera in a regular backpack. It’s light and very convenient for swivelling around my body to get my camera.
How do you physically take the picture? Do you have to shoot with one hand and hold on with the other?
This is quite difficult. I have to shoot with one hand, holding on to the edge of the roof with my other hand. It’s quite tricky to do, but over time I’ve developed a technique for steadying myself.
And my exercise routine helps me keep the camera still. But there have been a few situations where I was standing on the top of a tower without holding on and shooting with both hands.
How do you practise for something like this?
I go jogging every morning to help me to build up endurance over long periods of time. I also do pull-ups and push-ups to develop upper body strength. These are the most important things.
What do you wear when you climb?
I don’t wear anything special – just ordinary clothes! I dress for the weather, of course, and I always try to blend in. And if it’s a construction site, I wear a helmet.
How do you get access to the buildings you climb? Have you ever been arrested?
This is quite difficult – more difficult than the climb itself, you could argue. The first thing you must do is get an understanding of how the building is protected.
I’ll visit a site many times with my friends, looking for ways around the building’s methods of protection. For example, we’ll look out for an opportune emergency exit and see where this may lead.
It’s also possible to enter a building through the basement, and this is a common method that we use.
Despite the risks, I’ve rarely had problems with the police. The few times I’ve been caught, it’s usually just ended in fines.
What has been the most difficult building to climb so far?
The most difficult by far to climb was the Mercury City Tower, a 75-storey skyscraper in Moscow. Our ascent took about nine hours in total.
To reach the top and get around security, we had to climb up a narrow tube for about an hour. It was very dusty and stuffy inside there, and it felt like we were inside forever!
After we cleared the tube, we got on a ladder and climbed up to the top floors to wait until the builders finished their work.
Once everyone had left, we were able to climb on to the boom of a construction crane. This should have been simple enough to achieve, but the crane was completely covered in a thin crust of ice.
But we managed to do it and reach the tip of the crane, which stood at 1,246 feet.
Are you ever afraid up there?
Yes! I’ve been terrified before. In the early days, I was very afraid of falling. But over time that fear has gone away, and all I feel these days is adrenaline.
The excitement I feel when I’m on the edge of the roof or the top of a tower is what drives me to keep climbing. And now my photography enhances that experience.
Have you ever had any close calls and almost fallen?
Yes, but only once. It happened during winter when it was very slippery. I probably shouldn’t have been climbing in these conditions, as it was hard to get a firm grip. During my ascent I slipped and fell, but luckily I managed to cling to the edge and regain my balance.
After that experience, I became more careful – not only about when I make my climbs, but also being more deliberate and cautious with my movements.
I should point out that there is nothing complicated about climbing in the cold. The main thing is to just dress warmly and have gloves.
Of course the ice and snow give instability, but if you hold fast you will not fall. This is what I learned from that particular experience.
Your pictures are different from others because you include people in your photos. Why did you start doing this?
At first when I started taking pictures during my climbs, I thought the view from high above was enough.
But eventually I realised that including a person in the frame makes the picture much more effective. It gives the image a real sense of scale and makes the dramatic viewpoint much more powerful, in my opinion.
These are all my friends in my pictures. Like me, they also enjoy heights and the adrenaline of climbing. I do not have to convince anyone to join me. They know how dangerous it is.
What buildings would you like to climb that you haven’t already?
My wishlist is very long! I would love to climb some of the highest rooftops in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London…
But probably at the top of my list is climbing Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. [Sited in Dubai, the building is 830m high.] I’m sure I can do it!
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