Subscribe to our mailing list:

Waiting for the End
of the World

Photography by Richard Ross
In Conversation with Karen Spector

St. Pete, Utah, 2008.

Richard Ross has devoted much of his career to the spaces that most of us wish never to inhabit: survival shelters, prisons, interrogation rooms. Ross calls these the ‘architecture of authority and failure’— spaces constructed to exert power and to protect us when these very same powers falter.  

A photographer, researcher and professor of art based in Santa Barbara, CA , Ross has traveled the world to explore how power, in its myriad forms, manifests in the built environment — how the things we build can create our reality and reveal the failures of our own imaginations.

Here the artist discusses his series, Waiting for the End of the World which explores design by fear — Ross captured images of survival structures ranging from underground cities in China to the private underground bunkers of survivalists in the Midwest.

Livermore, California, 2002.

Karen Spector: Can you tell me about the genesis of Waiting for the End of the World and what was happening in the country when you began taking these photographs?

Richard Ross: From the start people were really interested in this disaster series or post apocalyptical series. It’s an interesting tension — they’re [building] bomb shelters, but maybe these are the most optimistic people on earth. The thinking is that if you protect yourself, there’s a world worth living for after a nuclear, biological, or social upheaval.

KS: Were most of the places you photographed relics of the cold war or had people steadily been creating new shelters for riding out other, imagined catastrophes?

RR: It was a combination of holdovers and  new ones. I met survivalists — a lot of Mormons.  There were even a couple of shelters in Santa Barbara that I photographed.

They’re actually very efficient spaces. If you want to have something that’s about 12 feet in diameter , you dig a hole about 20 feet deep from the top of it, drop in a drainage culvert and put a plywood floor in it. You’ve got two entrances and exits and one ventilation system — you have a bomb shelter that’s done relatively quickly.

KS: The London Underground and some of the public places that you photographed have actually been used to survive bombings. When you’re interacting with people who operate survival shelters, what are you encountering — secrecy, paranoia, suspicion?

RR: I always approach people with an open mind.  I find that my training as a photojournalist really helps me to try and understand what’s going on rather than simply react to it.  I talk to people and ask, “Well, what is this about?”

At times I slept in shelters. And that’s beyond what verbal communication can give, in terms of understanding what it is. [For instance] it’s always 50 degrees. When you close your eyes it’s black— like no other black you’ve ever encountered. There is a  total absence of light. When you wake up in the middle of the night in your house, there’s always something glowing somewhere — there’s starlight, there’s moonlight — there’s some reference. But in these survival shelters there’s an incredible cold, and dark and quiet like in a sensory deprivation tank. But again, you’re there alone and that would be unusual because these places were built for the survival of families, communities, societies.

In Beijing they built something underground that goes from the Forbidden City to Tiananmen. It can hold something like 200,000 people.

KS: Is access difficult?

RR: You can get into some of these places. There are urban spelunker’s guides to Moscow, for instance. When I went to Moscow I would stay in a really nice hotel with my family and then go with my teenage kids and literally rope down under Moscow’s State University and wait until. It was like mission impossible — waiting until security patrols passed so we could take off a manhole cover. Somebody would keep an eye out — time the patrols — and then we would go down underneath Moscow. If you were a Chechen terrorist these are very vulnerable places.  Some of these places were abandoned KGB listening posts, some of them were Stalin-era shelters under a group of skyscrapers like Seven Sisters — which is a pretty big series of Stalinist style buildings in Moscow — and they would all have their bomb shelters underneath.

KS:  After traveling the world visiting these different sites, would you say architecturally they share many of the same features?

RR: A lot of them are done — especially the survivalist ones — by a bunch of guys that have some heavy construction equipment and come together and say ‘Let’s do this because this person is president or this other person is president.’

You may have talked to your grandparents about the depression and great aunts and great uncles about WWII. I lived through Vietnam. You lived through 9/11. Everybody thinks that whatever’s going on is the end of the world as they know it.

Vitznau, Switzerland, 2003.
San Pete County, Utah, 2002.

KS: These shelters really are about surviving a human-made catastrophe.  Do you think that the people who build bomb shelters — both individuals and governments — do you think there’s pleasure in the fantasy of end times?

RR: Maybe. It’s almost like a Peter Pan land.  When you go down into the more individual bomb shelters, they’re often hoarders of weird shit. They have VHS tapes — they don’t even have DVDS. They have grain, meals ready to eat — like maybe it would be a big camping adventure.

KS: Like a big, end of the world adventure.

RR: Although I did interview a guy on the edge of Salt Lake City who had a wife and four daughters and a bomb shelter twenty feet underground. Above ground — at home — it was total chaos. Everything was everywhere. But  underground into the bomb shelter, everything was organized and neatly ordered and where he wanted it to be. In that sense it really was his refuge from his daily environmental disaster.

KS: Looking at the images, you’ve got to wonder what kind of life one is returning to after a stint underground.

RR: The goal is to survive for two weeks or three weeks —which is hard. The Green Briar in West Virginia, the major government shelter — a secret that everyone knew about — in their original stock of inventory, they had an incredible amount of alcohol, and no condoms. So either they didn’t think that women were going to be part of the program, or they didn’t think that the future was going to entail having to have birth control.

KS: These images are also pretty stark. It’s a pretty grim view of humanity. But I don’t feel that there’s pessimism in the work. I don’t feel like you’re a pessimistic person. How have your encounters with these architectures influenced your view of the human experience?

RR: I see them as exercises in futility and just silly. They make no sense to me — it makes no sense to me to retreat underground. Animals retreat underground or else they take flight. We don’t have wings. So like every other animal when threatened, we’ll go to ground. The logical solution, though,  is not to go underground, but to try and understand what conflicts are causing people such friction and consternation that they’re going to resort to a bomb shelter. It doesn’t make sense. And then you have places, like Scotland where you have a roundabout with a big arrow and a sign pointing to “Secret Nuclear Bomb Shelter”.

When you have shit like that, nobody laughs at it — they just think “Oh yes, let’s go visit that”. There’s a certain absurdity and irony in thinking that you’re creating something when in fact you’re giving in to the end of times. I’ve got my own individual extinction to face, why go on worrying about society?

KS: You mention this “secret/not secret” bomb shelter with a big sign. How much are these shelters about hiding and how much are they about “withstanding”? How much are these about protecting the individual vs. protecting the collective?

RR: One guy I spoke to, who was a survivalist, said, “It is important that I have enough resources for myself and my family in the event of a disaster. But it’s also important to make sure that everyone has enough resources that they don’t come after my resources.” They also talk about societal disasters— like a biological event or famine — as events where society can turn on itself. I think if you took that same idea, you could elaborate on it to say, “If we all just took care of each other a little bit more, there would be a lot less need for this paraphernalia that is end times.”

Charlie Hull's shelter, Emigrant, Montana, 2003.

This story originally appeared in WAX 8.