Unfortunately, this story is not a joke. On the 20th of June 2017, I transferred €2,365.67 (~$2,702) to a lawyer in Austria because I photographed an abandoned hotel in Austria in 2013 and put those photos online without permission. In this article I will tell you exactly what happened and how it happened.
In an attempt to not “poke the bear,” I’ve removed some of the personal information in the letters I will be sharing with you and I won’t be sharing any of the photos I took back then. The photo at the top of this blog was shot in an abandoned hotel in Italy.
In December 2013, I went to Austria to photograph abandoned buildings. There is a village where there are lots of abandoned buildings, mostly hotels. Photographing one of these abandoned hotels turned out to be a very expensive visit.
Entering was easy since multiple windows were standing open and I could just hop in. I started exploring the huge building and found a couple of interesting rooms. Some of these rooms were extremely decayed — there was one room in particular in which the wall behind the bed was covered in black mold. I took a couple of photos and after about an hour or two I left. After exploring the rest of the village, I continued my journey through Austria and Germany and went back home to The Netherlands.
The first thing I usually do when I come back home from a photography trip is import my photos into Lightroom and have a quick look at them. I was disappointed to see that I kind of messed it up. Most of the photos had really blown out highlights and I wasn’t happy with the results at all. Nevertheless, a few days later I edited some of the pictures and uploaded them onto Flickr (when I still had an account). Something I used to do back then is create an album for each location I had visited and give the album the “Urbex name” of the location. This is how my photos were later discovered by the lawyer that charged me.
While I completely forgot about having those pictures online, I received a letter in January this year from a lawyer in Austria. He accused me of entering the property without permission and uploading photos of the interior without having paid license fees. He wanted me to pay the fees and the labor it cost him to write me.
A total amount of €1,054.46 (~$1,204).
At first, not knowing which location this was about, I did some research and found out it was the hotel I shot in December 2013. I hadn’t looked at the photos for a few years and when I saw them again I thought they were utter crap and I felt stupid for not having removed them earlier.
Because I do not have a very good understanding of the German language, I requested legal counsel, both from a lawyer in The Netherlands and from a lawyer in Austria. The lawyer from Austria basically advised me not to reply to the letter, thinking it was just an attempt to get easy money and that the accuser wouldn’t take the effort to go any further with it. The lawyer from The Netherlands wrote an e-mail to the accuser telling him that I was not planning on paying the amount he was requesting.
A few days after the e-mail from the Dutch lawyer was sent, we received a reply from the accuser warning me that if I didn’t pay he would take it to court. I was advised to not take the warning seriously and to leave it alone. It would supposedly go away… which did not turn out to happen.
While I was shooting my report in Pripyat, Chernobyl, in May this year, a package with a lot of papers was delivered to my house. When I got home I read it and, while most of it was in German, I thought I understood this was a letter from court informing me that I was officially being charged.
Since I live in Europe, I apparently have the right to refuse the receival of these official papers since the papers were written in a language I did not fully understand. I was allowed to request a translation into a language I did understand and I requested a translation into Dutch using the attached form.
I did not receive a translation, but weeks later I received the official judgement of the court in Austria telling me that I was found guilty. Since I didn’t show up at the court session, not knowing when it was since I never received a translation, I was immediately found guilty. There was no defense from my side. I had to pay a crazy amount of money and was never allowed to go back to the building that I entered without permission, or appeal.
At first I still was not planning to pay since I had the feeling I was being treated unfairly. I should have at least have the chance to defend myself or be aware of the official charges by being able to read them in a language I understand. I’ve checked whether my request had been sent correctly to and been received in Austria, and it was. So if the request was delivered why didn’t I get a translation? I have no idea.
Again, I requested legal advice in The Netherland. I was told, by three separate lawyers, that in my case the best thing to do was to pay and bring the whole thing to an end. That advice was based on the fact that I don’t have an endless amount of money to appeal. The process costs were already very high and if I appealed and lost the appeal, the amount of money I had to pay would only go up. The risk of losing the appeal was quite high because, in all fairness, I did enter the building and post the photos online without permission.
In addition to that, I became aware of the fact that other photographers have had to pay the accuser as well. Another option was to simply not pay but again, since this is happening in Europe, they would have a bailiff get the money from me and it would cost me extra.
Do I feel like it’s my own fault that I had to pay this much money for photos that I will never ever use after taking them in an abandoned building? Mostly, yes. The risk of entering a building without permission, taking photos, and sharing them online is to receive a punishment. I’m completely aware of the fact that I’m doing something I’m not allowed to do.
Do I feel like the amount of money I had to pay is out of proportion and I have been wrongly advised by lawyers in The Netherlands and Austria? Yes, I do. But there is nothing I feel I can do, not having any knowledge about the legal system and only basic understanding of the German language. Will I stop doing what I love doing so much? No, I will not. While this is definitely a major setback I will continue to explore and document the beauty of abandoned buildings.
Lesson well learned.
About the author: Roman Robroek is a Netherlands-based urban exploration photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see more of his work on his website, or by following him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.