A personal trainer nine to five and a rooftop daredevil outside of work, Daniel Lau has accrued almost 120,000 Instagram followers thanks to the high-risk selfies he takes atop Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. Lau’s journey as an urban explorer began as a way to escape the monotony of university classes as he didn't want higher education to consume him. He and his two best friends, with whom he would later form adventurist group Exthetics (a portmanteau of extremity and aesthetics), decided to take photos around Hong Kong. Wanting to capture something more than just cookie cutter photos of the city, Lau travelled to abandoned places, construction sites, highways and eventually, rooftops. We chat to Lau about his beginnings as a rooftop Instagrammer and what motivates him to keep exploring.
Hi Daniel! What inspired you to start rooftop photography and Instagramming?
I had a camera which I stored away at home but didn’t know how to use. It wasn’t until I started exploring with my friends that I began to take photos. We wanted to do something more than the same old photos of Victoria Harbour and the Peak. Otherwise, why should people pay attention to our photos? That was why we began exploring the city and looking for peculiar spots like abandoned places, construction sites and the top of highways.
When you first climbed onto these spots, were you afraid of breaking the law?
No, I found it quite fun. Nobody had done that before and so we decided to do it. We realised that we were able to take pictures of a whole new side of Hong Kong and discovered places that were often overlooked. More importantly, through photography, I could document it.
What was the experience like the first time you climbed a rooftop?
It was my friend who suggested going up a rooftop. After exploring different parts of the city, I didn’t mind trying out. When I first got up there, it was absolutely incredible! It wasn’t excitement – a lot of people thought that I was doing this for the thrill of it – but rather, I felt extremely comfortable and calm. When I'm on the ground, people are always pushing and cars are honking. You can’t see the sky as buildings block the view. It's suffocating. When I'm on a rooftop, there are no people or noises, and the sky is open and vast. When I walk towards the edge and look down, the city is in slow motion. To me, it feels like a state of meditation instead of pursuing excitement.
How do you pick which buildings to climb?
I think exploration is about not knowing what's going to happen next. The most interesting thing about urban exploration is that there are no guidelines to follow and no one to tell you what to do. You have to depend on your gut instincts to create what you envisioned.
You once climbed a rooftop during a typhoon eight signal. What was that experience like?
On that day, we went out before the signal was hoisted and we were still able to stand in the high winds. But by the time I got to the roof, the typhoon eight signal was up. I was standing on a ledge and I felt it shake as I walked on it. It was an incredible experience.
Is there a building you have yet to climb up?
The IFC. I’ve never been up there and I'm not sure if I can reach the top. From a photography point of view, I don’t think I can take beautiful pictures from up there. There are a lot of structures sticking out here and there. The shot might not be great but exploration is about finding special places.
You’ve also been to other cities’ rooftops to take photos. What would you say are the main differences?
In Hong Kong, buildings are all cramped together. Manhattan is similar in that way but does not provide the same feeling. In Hong Kong, you can see everything within a short distance – the sea, hills, open spaces, football pitches – when you are on a rooftop, as well as a lot of skyscrapers. Manhattan does not offer this quality. This is unique only in Hong Kong.
Do you have any goals that you and Exthetics would like to achieve?
I still haven’t fully explored everything. Exploring is a lifelong goal for me. As an explorer, I don’t want to limit myself to only exploring urban areas so I try and head out to the countryside. I also always encourage people to step out of their comfort zones and to try something new.
A video of Exthetics on rooftops went viral in 2014. Did you see that coming?
It was a complete accident. Of course, I wanted people to appreciate my work but I didn’t expect the video to go viral. A friend of mine posted the video on Facebook publicly by accident. Within a few hours, it was out of control! It was shared and downloaded by thousands of people. It was a rea surprise.
You’ve climbed up a lot of buildings already. Do you find that it offers the same feeling or are there surprises?
It is different every time unless you go to the same place every day. There is always something different. There may be renovations or a new landmark nearby. You realise that an area is always changing and Hong Kong is always developing.
Apart from the IFC, do you have a lifelong personal goal that you want to achieve?
I want to explore nature. I really want to go to the uncharted areas. I believe there must be areas in the world that have not been mapped. There must be places where people have not been before, amazing locations that I can take pictures of. I really want to go to those places.
You’re also taking part in the Puma Night Run 2017 in Singapore on August 27, as well as representing the mineral water brand Volvic. Tell us all about it.
I joined this Volvic campaign #FindYourVolcanoHK because I really resonate with its message that there’s an inner volcano inside all of us waiting to burst. I believe that everyone has the ability to achieve things they could never imagine. It doesn’t always have to a big achievement that changes society and the world. Small changes can be monumental, they just need to believe in their own strength. There's so much in the world that is undiscovered whether it is through urban exploration or exploring one's potential. I hope through this 6k run and through my social media, everyone can expand and improve to be a better version of themselves.