On the Streets With @VisualContrabrand

Meet Hector, one of Houston’s most intrepid urban explorers (and exciting Instagrammers).

By Hector*, as told to Sarah Rufca January 4, 2015 Published in the January 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

A rare selfie on a rooftop in Montrose

*aka Visual Contrabrand

Before it was demolished, The Houston Club was the first building I ever snuck into. I’ve been taking pictures since last May and like most people I started on the ground, shooting skylines, but everybody was doing that. Then I discovered these photographers from New York on Instagram who take pictures from the tops of buildings looking down. That’s how I started climbing stuff.

Growing up I was so afraid of heights. I wouldn’t even ride on roller coasters. Now I can scramble to the top of a crane in under 10 minutes. There’s one picture where I’m on the edge of a building and you can see my feet dangling off the side. When I look at the photo my palms still get sweaty. 

Instead of shooting people I started shooting buildings because I still feel like I’m learning and not very good. If I shoot people, it’s more about how I make them look — I want them to like my work. If I shoot buildings, I only have to satisfy myself.

Looking down from the Wedge Tower

I really started doing photography seriously a few months ago, after my ex-girlfriend, who's the mother of my son, and I broke up. That was my way of keeping myself busy. I’ve got a three-bedroom house to myself now, and it’s just not the same. I would go out at night a couple of times a week, just drive around exploring the city, because I didn’t want to be at home. At night it’s a lot easier as far as climbing things, anyway. I just walk around and find a crane, or find a building that’s under construction and see where I can go.

Shooting from the Tennison Lofts downtown

People always ask me, “Are you scared of getting caught?” “Are you scared of falling?” I won’t do anything crazy. I’ve seen pictures of people taking pictures while hanging off a building. I’m not trying to do that. 

But everyone I know that does this kind of stuff has been caught—kicked out of buildings, ticketed, or even taken downtown—so I know it’s just a matter of time. One of the reasons I don’t put my face in my photographs is because I just don’t care to be known. The other reason is in case I get caught trespassing, hopefully there’s less evidence against me. That’s what the money from selling my prints is for. I don’t spend it, I just keep it on the side in case I have to pay a fine or need bail money.

Sunrise over the city from an abandoned factory east of Downtown

The night skyline, as seen from the Be Someone bridge over I-45

In Houston as far as I know I have the record for the highest rooftop shot, 45 floors up. In the Wedge Tower, there’s a restaurant on the 43rd floor, and the restaurant itself has a roof patio. The restaurant was locked when I went there—it was their lunch hour—but there was a hallway outside that led to the stairs. I figured I was already there, so why not try it? The top of the building wasn’t locked down. I couldn’t believe it. That’s the first time I got that high.

Exploring in Southeast Houston

One building I’d love to shoot from is the Chase Tower because it’s the tallest in Texas. There’s an observation deck, but I don’t like shooting behind glass. Part of the fun is trying to sneak in, especially with a backpack and a tripod, when there’s a person in the lobby of every building that wants to know who you are and where you’re going. There's an adrenaline rush to walking in like I own the place. Sometimes the elevators require an access key to operate, so instead I find the nearest stairs and start climbing—it's my exercise. I've walked up 500 stairs just to find the rooftop access door locked. It's all part of the risk.

In the end, though, I do it for the views. Time goes by so quickly when I’m up there. There’s nothing else like it. I could have the worst day ever at work but once I get up there, I’m happy. 

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