Jeremy Kai Captures the Dark Side – NMP
NMP: When did you first become interested in photography? How did you learn to take photos?
Jeremy Kai: Photography was always something in my periphery growing up, but I didn’t really set my sights on it until the final years of high school. I’ve always been a visually-oriented person and a kinesthetic learner. The act of physically doing things yielded the best results. Growing up I was in a continuous struggle to balance schoolwork with my urge to draw constantly. From an early age it was clear that I should go into the arts or else live a life of boredom in another field.
My heavy leaning toward my creative side was a convenient platform around the time when digital cameras became commonplace. With the help of rudimentary photography classes in high school, I became obsessed with the experiential nature illustrated in photos.
NMP: You studied at OCAD: what was your field there and how did it influence your photography and choice of subjects?
JK: When I arrived at OCAD I had upgraded to a DSLR camera that opened up a new door for what was, at the time, a steadfast hobby. I enrolled in the illustration program and completed with a degree in design. Being in downtown Toronto constantly gave me the perfect subject – the city. This was when photo blogs were becoming popular and I followed a bunch, many from Toronto photographers. When I eventually began my own blog (which no longer exists) it became almost a game of bragging rights. If I could find a spot in the city that either no one had shot or no one could identify, that was a gold star for me. However, taking long walks with my camera after classes revealed something more meaningful. My relationship with the city soon matured. Using Toronto as a photographic subject was a way of immortalizing the experience of the streets and buildings not only for myself, but for the ongoing narrative of the city, whose story too few know about. I saw myself part of this larger movement to unearth some sort of mythological grandeur to instill in the hearts of Torontonians. While my design classes kept my visual brain cells in check, I took several urban issues courses as electives and grew a great interest in cities and built environments.
NMP: What first piqued your interest in the underground worlds and built environments of cities? Have you always been an explorer?
JK: As a child I was always wandering off somewhere, much to the frustration of my parents. In many cases I simply wanted to know what was going on off the main road and behind the scenes. This got me in trouble a few times, but that same sense of curiosity remains bloated inside of me. Some might call it an explorer’s instinct. I see it more as an extension of my interest in spaces and the broad definition of architecture, both of which sprouted from my overarching receptiveness to experiential learning.
Something inside me sparks when I enter a new and interesting space like a spike to the senses. Photography has been a great medium to prolong that sensation. I began as an active participant in what many refer to as urban exploration. It made romanticizing about the city easier. I took my camera through the forgotten and abandoned structures dotting the city that go mostly unnoticed. I found a whole new side of the city that existed beneath the thin veneer of daily life in a metropolis. Somewhere along the way I caught wind of the rivers that exist beneath the streets, which changed my perception of the city even more. Once you find out about a secret in the city, you can’t stop thinking about it and you begin to notice things in plain sight that relate to that secret. The city’s lost rivers might exist underground today, but there are clues to their former paths on the surface – street formation, tree species, ravines, and manhole covers can all be potential indications.
Walking through the flow of these buried rivers was a whole other experience that I think brought me closer to understanding the city, historically, physically, and maybe even spiritually.
NMP: Has it been difficult to get access to the underground and abandoned spaces of Toronto? What is your process for finding them? Have you been able to do your own planning for these shoots or have you had to rely on experts (city workers, engineers, etc.)?
JK: Regrettably, the City of Toronto doesn’t seem to be interested in showcasing its lost rivers like the Garrison or Taddle creeks. As a result, entry into these systems, which act as drainage networks today, is done on unsanctioned visits. Satellite maps can come in handy if you know what sorts of topographic details to look for.
NMP: What has the process of documenting the invisible brought to the surface for you? What kinds of things have you discovered and how have they impacted you?
JK: I think I’ve developed an appreciation to the immense process that builds cities. A place like Toronto can be great even if you just scratch the surface, but if you do a bit of digging, there are so many more layers that are worth checking out. They make the city function, they can send you back in time, and offer new perspectives on places you thought you knew inside out. The tunnels that snake below the streets and spaces behind boarded windows are places few people even consider to be part of the urban environment.
The Garrison creek in the west end, for example, began to be buried in the 1880s in a series of brick pipes. In this chapter of the Toronto’s history, the city was largely using its creeks as open sewers. As a result, people were dying of cholera and other diseases, so the city buried the Garrison to prevent further complications. Today the creek doesn’t exist on any modern map but continues to flow just a few metres beneath the streets. Too few people know of the Garrison and its influence on the city. The creek’s mouth at Lake Ontario was where Fort York was tactically built so that the slopes of the ravine could be used as natural fortification.
NMP: Your photos portray very romantic images of Toronto’s underground and abandoned spaces. Is this a realistic portrayal of the spaces you shoot? Do you think your photos have awakened a new sense of mystery and mythology in city dwellers?
Toronto doesn’t seem to have the same sense of romanticism that Paris or New York have, in that there are few stories that are universally “Toronto.” There aren’t many movies or books about Toronto and given the city’s rich history, I think it’s a pity. My final project in my fourth year at OCAD revolved around building a sense of mythology around Toronto. My goal was, and still is, to make people daydream more about the city beyond the typical tourist attractions that appear on postcards. I found a number of unusual true stories that happened in places around the city that could act as different chapters in the ongoing narrative of Toronto. I wanted stories that people could be proud of that weren’t feats of human progress on a CN Tower sort of scale. If I can get people daydreaming about lost rivers in their town and why they’re important, then I’ve achieved my goal.
NMP: Do you ever feel a sense of panic in your work? Either through the process of your shoots, or as a result of the destruction and development you witness in our cities?
JK: I’m not sure if you’d call it panic, but perhaps more a sense of urgency or concern. When I first began shooting forgotten places in Toronto I became greatly influenced by photographer Edward Burtynsky. I admired the way he was able to capture the dark side of human consumption and environmental sacrifices in the pursuit of progress. He did so with an elegant balance of awareness and unconventional beauty. Although I wasn’t shooting the same subjects necessarily, I kept that sort of dichotomy in mind.
Shooting underground drainage networks and urban waterways brought to light an effect on the environment that I hadn’t considered before. Life on earth would not exist without natural processes like the water cycle. Water is such an integral component on which we depend to sustain us. Many of the world’s greatest cities are built near a body of water like an ocean, lake, or river. However, a characteristic of cities and urban landscapes is the web of impermeable surfaces that do not absorb rain water like the earth does. As a result, less significant rivers and creeks disappear from the surface and are replaced by urban development, but these natural features cannot simply vanish. Instead, we have mimicked the watershed process and shadowed the paths of water underground. If this was not done, the streets would flood every time it rained.
As a city grows, so does the need for more sewers and drains. Similar to Burtynsky, I am interested in how humans have changed natural landscapes to suit the great invention of cities. It’s far from a perfect model and we ironically end up copying nature, so perhaps we need a lesson in urban-nature synergy.
NMP: Has shooting these lost and fragile environments of the city politicized you and your work? In what ways?
JK: I am a far more political person today than I was even five years ago. Shooting abandoned buildings has given me an awareness of civic heritage and an appreciation of lost architectural forms. They tell untold stories of our history like no inhabited place can, but also illustrate the interests of land owners and municipalities. It also shows their will, or lack thereof, to preserve a sense of place, no matter how significant. Toronto isn’t the best candidate for remembering its past. For me, photographing the forgotten is my own form of urban salvation before the inevitable wrecking ball.
Immersing myself in the city’s lost rivers has heightened my environmental awareness. Entire species and ecosystems have vanished in the process of burying water. In Toronto and many other cities around the world, grassroots movements are sprouting up to celebrate lost rivers and, in some cases, bringing them back to the surface.
My pursuits have also given me an idea of the sheer magnitude of sewer and drain construction. They are physically and economically burdening and not often a hot topic when discussing what your tax dollars are being spent on. Water treatment, pollution prevention, and flood control continue to be large and growing processes that will become increasingly relevant in the coming decades.
My photos aren’t meant to be didactic. They simply present viewers with our current situation and it’s up to them to either be moved by what humanity has done with the built environment, or simply appreciate the unusual beauty of forgotten spaces that exist just beyond the familiar.
NMP: What else can we look forward to from you?
JK: I’m currently working on a photo series in which I find different Toronto architectural styles and urban traits. I got the idea while looking idly at maps of the city and found interest in the streets that veer off of Toronto’s rigid grid formation. I expanded on this idea when visiting points of interest in person and how the surrounding buildings and roads all relate to each other at these spots. The project is ongoing with a list of sites that grows daily. Unless I move to a cabin in the woods, my work will forever revolve around some sort of urbanism.
NMP: Where can people find your work and where can we purchase your book?
JK: My book, Rivers Forgotten, is in its second run thanks to the wonderful reception from retailers in Toronto and promotion by my publisher Koyama Press. My photos can be found at www.riversforgotten.com. You can find a list of retail locations in Toronto there, or go to www.koyamapress.com for more options.
Jeremy Kai is a self-taught photographer from the photogenic metropolis of Toronto. While attending school at the Ontario College of Art & Design, he became fascinated by the built environment and how humans have altered natural landscapes to facilitate urban development. His underground photography explores the concepts of urban watersheds and the methods in which cities interact with water and waste water. These processes go mostly unobserved by the general public.