It’s a dramatic example of how Smith’s videos as The Bearded Explorer can reclaim lost spaces. For that woman, he was able to reconnect her with childhood memories. Other locations – whether a former hospital near London or an unfinished hotel in Bali – may have a less intimate impact, but it’s all part of the same process.
“I go there, and I capture it all on camera and make the videos. So, in a way, I’m preserving what’s there,” says Smith, “because eventually these places fall down. They get redeveloped. And then they just disappear and there’s just a memory. I’m documenting the memories.”
Smith has always been drawn towards places that have been left behind. As a kid he loved to play in derelict buildings – not a popular choice with his mum. But the drive to investigate the overlooked remained with him as an adult, so he took up urban exploring in his spare time. An urban explorer is “basically someone who goes where other people wouldn’t,” he explains. “If somewhere looks interesting, most people walk past it. I’m the sort of person that would go in and look. I’m really amazingly nosy.”
About 10 years ago, Smith started taking his camera along on the trips – firstly just to take stills, but not long after, he started putting videos up on YouTube. “The channel was slow at first,” he says. “It was 2018 when the subscribers started to go up. Now it’s crazy. I’ve got almost 30 million views on YouTube. My TikTok’s massive – I’ve got over 80,000 followers.”
The Southsea resident is the only UK-based urban explorer who has been verified on Instagram. “I thought it was just a strange hobby at first, but actually there’s a lot of people who are also interested. It’s great I can go there and film these places and show other people.”
Three years ago, Smith got to the point when he was making enough from his videos to make his hobby a full-time job. “It’s completely changed my life,” he says. “I was working seven days a week doing call outs and clearing drains as a plumber. It was a horrible job. It’s just been a complete 180 on my whole life. It’s better than winning the lottery, in my eyes.”
Three of The Bearded Explorer’s favourite locations
A luxury hotel resort built in the 1990s, this once-opulent location never opened to the public and is being slowly eaten by the jungle. “There were marble floors everywhere,” says Smith. “The baths were made out of solid marble and it was just unbelievable, some of the architecture in there – these big dragons at the main staircase. But there were monkeys running around inside the rooms. It was just really surreal.”
“I went to a hospital near London that had been abandoned since the 1980s. I was in there completely on my own. I heard something scurry up the hallway in front of me. As I picked my camera up and panned up, I could see something. There was a shadow standing in the hallway in front of me, down the corridor. I actually caught it on camera. I don’t know what it was. But it really did scare me.”
“It had been empty for around 32 years. Everything was still in there. There were still cups of tea half-made in the kitchen. It was really quite emotional seeing all the stuff in there.”
See more of The Bearded Explorer here
This article is part of an art special edition of The Big Issue, curated by My Dog Sighs and featuring his exclusive artwork on the cover. It is on the streets from 10 July. Find your local vendor here. Throughout the week we will be sharing more stories from creatives, explorers and activists who are reclaiming the lost. Read those stories here.
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