His work has since become a global phenomenon that now includes several books, television news appearances, and art museum exhibitions. He has photographed everything including an abandoned NASCAR track in North Carolina and eerily-silent amusement parks from New Orleans all the way to Berlin.
Lawless spoke with PressureLife about his upcoming projects, including gigs with the Weather Channel, upcoming reissues of his books, and a new series on VICELAND, VICE’s cable channel, entitled Abandoned. The premiere episode of Abandoned takes place in Cleveland and first aired on VICELAND on Friday, Sept. 2.
Lawless started photographing abandoned places many years ago, initially intending to make a documentary of broken America:
“I wanted people to see parts of America they didn’t know existed. My main goal was to show the world, not necessarily Americans. I wanted to show people outside of this country. That was such a strong passion of mine at a young age, but I lacked the logistics to do it. Then social media comes into play. Photo-sharing apps like Instagram and Facebook became very popular and I thought, what better way to reach a global audience?”
Misperceptions and a general lack of awareness are what drive his passion for his work:
“There’s major issues that go on in the places I photograph. Some of these places are not entirely abandoned. You’ve got some of the most poor, broken, and disenfranchised Americans that still live in these areas and most are minorities. I take it personally that people don’t take the time to consider what is going on in these parts of the country. They’d rather focus on the beautiful parts and what looks good as opposed to the conceptual view of our country as a whole and things we’ve been going through.
“I’ve been all over some of the worst parts of the country and when you meet someone that still lives in these areas, most of them have a tremendous amount of hope. I find that really inspiring. You wouldn’t think that, but oftentimes I find them to have more hope than someone who lives in the suburbs. You’re just expecting to hear the worst, but even though they live much differently than most Americans, they haven’t given up hope. They learn to thrive in the conditions that are given to them. I find that extraordinarily positive.”
Lawless has two books coming out in 2017:
“There are two separate books being released in 2017: Autopsy of America: The Death of a Nation, and in the fall I’m going to be releasing a book detailing the abandoned amusement parks titled Bizarro. Both of those are scheduled to be released worldwide in bookstores in 2017. I’ll be doing book signings around the country as well as here in Cleveland. I’ll be doing several throughout this area.”
Lawless is involved with the new VICELAND series Abandoned:
“Abandoned is hosted by a friend of mine, a professional skateboarder named Rick McCrank, and the debut episode of the series opens up right here in Cleveland. It showcases my work and what I’ve done in the city of Cleveland in terms of my images and my message behind my work. Each episode is going to be going to different kinds of abandoned locations. The narrative switches with whoever’s on that episode. I also worked behind the scene for the series; I was hired for director of photography and as a location scout, so for people who are familiar with my work, a lot of the places they go are locations that I picked out for the series. A lot of my viral projects, they’re going to be going to those locations.”
Lawless’ work with The Weather Channel is heating up:
“The Weather Channel outfitted me with some really cool equipment, a kind of newer technology 360-degree video cameras. They’re two cameras that shoot 180-degrees that are outfitted to go back to back so it actually shoots 360. They hired me to start using these cameras in some of the locations that I go in, like the abandoned Six Flags in New Orleans. It records video for about a minute and a half and it shows every direction you can look, so if you move your phone you can see left, up, down—you can move all around and it’s like you’re with me in the moment. And it’s video, so it’s not a picture like you’ve seen where people will stitch photos together. This is real time. You hear water dripping, you see a bird fly through the entire frame. It’s really riveting.”
Cleveland’s recent resurgence isn’t lost on Lawless. He was recently given a tour of the new Flats district and loved it, but he doesn’t feel the money from a booming downtown will make its way back to the poorer outskirts of the city:
“I don’t think there’d be any kind of long-term, sustainable effect that we would have hoped for, and I definitely don’t see any money trickling out any time soon. During the RNC, Inside Edition came out and we filmed all throughout the city. They were shocked at the parts I took them to. There was a whole segment [on the show] about how good it’s gotten and how bad it is. It was this dichotomy of both things. The good is thriving and so is the bad, and it doesn’t seem to be meeting anywhere in the middle.”
All of Lawless’ books are available as self-releases on sephlawless.com. The Weather Channel has already released one of his 360-degree videos on their YouTube channel. You can check out Abandoned on VICELAND now.