Their rooftop photos are stunning. Their subculture has its critics.
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Their rooftop photos are stunning. Their subculture has its critics.
“Rooftoppers” get a thrill from taking photos atop skyscrapers and sharing them on social media. Detractors call them reckless.

by Mike Ives, Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle and Tiffany May

NEW YORK, NY.- Remi Lucidi, a sergeant in the French army, died far from a battlefield. His body was found recently aside a Hong Kong skyscraper where he had been spotted near the rooftop.

In his spare time, Lucidi, 30, was a “rooftopper,” shorthand for someone who takes photos and selfies from the tops of tall buildings, sometimes by trespassing. After his death was reported, some Instagram users debated the value and purpose of his art, which involved clambering onto ledges and antennae in cities across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

To friends and admirers, Lucidi’s spine-tingling photos were the work of a talented, restless adventurer. To his critics, they were a case study in reckless risk-taking.

That debate mirrors tensions within a broader movement called “urban exploration,” or “urbex,” one that is often associated with people who trespass in order to tell the stories of abandoned properties. Rooftopping is part of urbex, but many of its practitioners are more interested in producing social media content than in exploring marginal urban landscapes with a quasi-academic spirit.

In an extreme example, Russian model Viki Odintcova dangled from a skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, without safety equipment. Her stunt generated more than 1.6 million views after she posted it on Instagram in 2017, and plenty of criticism.

“To Model Viki Odintcova: That Photo Was Really Not Worth Risking Your Life,” read the headline of a Forbes commentary. (She did not respond to a request for comment.)

Several others around the world have died while rooftopping in recent years.

Criticism sometimes comes from within the urbex movement. A prominent rooftooper, Toronto-based photographer Neil Ta, quit the practice about a decade ago, saying that he had been disillusioned to see the pastime turn into a contest over who could take the most dangerous pictures. Other critics are urbex veterans who object to the rooftopping ethos.

“Rooftopping is focused more on the thrill and the experience of being in high, vertiginous and perilous locations, whereas urbex explores abandoned places in a way that is safer, more documentational and historical in nature,” HK Urbex, a collective of masked explorers in Hong Kong, said in a statement.

HK Urbex, whose members venture into abandoned or dangerous sites across the Chinese territory as a way of exploring its history, said rooftoppers have died around the world from a combination of inexperience, overconfidence and the desire to take thrilling pictures.

“A life is not worth a like on social media,” the collective said.

Theo Kindynis, a sociologist who has studied rooftopping, said that to many urban explorers, young rooftoppers who engage in made-for-Instagram antics are known as “dangle kiddies.”

“Remi’s Instagram is full of the same tropes — legs dangling in front of a cityscape, selfie stick on top of a mast, silhouetted figure on a ledge — that were already becoming cliche in 2016,” said Kindynis, a professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, referring to Lucidi.

Some rooftoppers push back against that characterization. One is Baptiste Hermant, 23, a Frenchman who has posted “dangling” photos but described himself in an interview as an explorer, not a rooftopper.

Hermant said most of his urban exploration happens off camera, and that he does it mainly for the pleasure of drinking beer with his friends on rooftops, after nighttime climbs, while watching the sunrise.

“To be on a roof is just my thing,” Hermant said, adding that he sees urban exploration as a natural outgrowth of a childhood spent scaling rocks and trees.

As for Lucidi, his friends described him in interviews as an experienced climber who had a particular interest in Hong Kong’s dramatic skyline. A statement posted to one of his Instagram pages this past week called him an “extraordinary photographer who captured the beauty of the world from breathtaking heights.”

One of his friends, Bulgarian rooftopper Yordan Boev, said on Instagram that he planned to “conquer fear everyday” as a way of honoring his friend’s legacy.

“Steel towers are very much like friendships,” he wrote in another post that showed the two men taking a selfie together in Bulgaria, with Lucidi holding the camera. “We build them strong and tall.”

Julien Kolly, a gallerist in Zurich who represents a French graffiti artist known for urban exploration, said that Lucidi reminded him of Alain Robert, a French stuntman who has scaled buildings around the world for decades. He added that Lucidi’s social media posts were merely a product of his era.

“During his time, Alain Robert could only rely on the press to cover his ascents, whereas nowadays, Remi Enigma takes charge of staging and photographing his own exploits to feed his Instagram account,” Kolly said, referring to Lucidi’s Instagram nom de plume.

Lucidi’s death was confirmed by telephone Thursday by the French military and reported earlier by The South China Morning Post and other news outlets. He was on vacation in Hong Kong when he died, said a French military spokesperson who declined to be named, citing protocol.

Hong Kong authorities have not confirmed the exact circumstances of the death, saying only that police officers found Lucidi’s body after responding to a call from a security guard.

Lucidi’s Instagram page includes 143 posts from excursions around the world, including London, Bangkok, Mexico City and Dubai. In one post, he said he traveled widely “to get more adrenaline to find a better way to enjoy life.”

Many of his posts were accompanied by hashtags such as #urbanrogues and #scaryhighstuffs, and playful captions that made light of the risks he took to get his shots.

“Relaxing on the Edge,” he wrote of lying on a roof ledge in Warsaw, Poland, two years ago.

Lucidi had made several trips to Hong Kong. His last target there was the Tregunter Towers, a three-building luxury residence that sits on a quiet, winding road near the mountainous spine of the city’s main island — high above the trams, buses, office buildings and pedestrians. The South China Morning Post reported that a witness had seen him knocking on the window of a 68th-floor penthouse.

On Friday morning, security guards at the complex were standing behind a black gate shrouded by subtropical foliage with purple flowers. Domestic workers guided pedigree dogs and baby strollers up and down narrow, twisting sidewalks.

A few runners were heading further uphill, toward a hiking trail that climbs through a forest to a mountain peak with panoramic views. Some paused to look back at the same skyline that Lucidi had captured in his last post.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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