While climbing on top of an abandoned roller coaster in Berlin earlier this year, photographer Seph Lawless suddenly heard the police. “They said ‘Hey you, get down here,’ or something in German,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my entire life.”
But even after the cops had taken his passport and were walking him out of the park, Lawless (the name is a pseudonym) couldn’t resist taking one more picture.
“I had the whole park except for one shot I really wanted more than anything,” he says. “It was the Ferris Wheel, with dinosaurs falling down in front. I kept pleading with them, ‘Please, one more.’ I saw the shot as I was walking and I just couldn’t help myself–I got to my knees and took the shot. It was one of those opportunities, either you’re going to take it or you’re not.”
Lawless was finishing a series for his latest book, a collection of abandoned amusement parks around the world. It grew out of a larger project called Autopsy in America, looking at how economic decline has decimated landmarks like local malls.
“I was going into abandoned buildings in poor parts of America, showcasing the devastation, the loss of manufacturing jobs because of globalization,” he says. “Abandoned amusement parks were something that people were really connecting with.”
Some, like the Chippewa Lake Theme Park in Ohio, which opened in the late 1880s, Lawless had actually been to as a child. He writes in the book:
I remember like it was yesterday. Going up that first incline. I can still hear the clink, clink, clink of the chains slowly pulling the cars upward. As soon as you reached the top there would be a deafening silence followed by screams and laughter. I remember riding all of these rides then at night sitting on a blanket by the lake under the many stars watching fireworks. I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but I remember everything I did here.
Going back, he says, was a surreal experience.
“Whenever you’re in something so big, whether it’s a shopping mall or amusement park or stadium that’s abandoned, there’s such a weird feeling there,” he says. “There’s abandonment for what appears to be miles around, and it’s just completely quiet. It’s kind of apocalyptic, but beautiful in a way. You almost feel like you’re the last person on the planet. It’s kind of peaceful.”