Adventurous photographers have been sneaking into the sewers for years, and the images are now regularly appearing on blogs and at photo festivals, yet it’s still against the law.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Jeremy Kai walked just beyond the edge of a clearing in a west-end park and dropped a black bag to the ground. Then he pulled on a pair of dark gloves, looked around, and squatted next to a manhole. He removed the cover to expose a ladder and a sign warning of possible flash floods. Kai was sporting the kind of orange safety vest usually worn by construction workers, so no one noticed as he took his time shuttling gear down the ladder. As he descended a final time, he made sure to slide the drain cover back into place.
The ladder led to a small chamber. Off to one side, there was a horseshoe-shaped opening in the wall, which served as a lookout over a water storage container below—large enough to hold a modest house. Kai sent the beam of his flashlight over the container and reminded us of the large, flat clearing in the park above. “This is what’s beneath it,” he said.
Toronto’s nearly 10,000 kilometres of sewers serve as the city’s guts, moving rain- and waste-water. But few people ever understand the sewer system’s strength and sophistication. As one of the few people who regularly explores and photographs the city’s drains, Kai hopes to change this.
Exploring the sewers is illegal, of course, but in a strange way, Kai’s photographs provide a unique bit of PR for the city. He uses slow shutter speeds, a tripod, and an arsenal of flashlights to illuminate his shots. His techniques render the city’s hidden arteries beautiful, making the water flowing through the drains appear clean and smooth. Kai recently published a book (Rivers Forgotten) of draining photographs, and, along with peer Michael Cook, had his work featured in the CONTACT photo festival.
This sort of mainstream success seems a long way from the days of Ninjalicious, a Torontonian who published a zine about urban exploration in the 1990s. After his death in 2005, Ninjalicious was hailed as a kind of renegade folk hero. On the other hand, a Toronto Water staffer recently added Kai on LinkedIn, and two others showed up at one of his photo exhibitions. They asked him about his photographs, and, before they left, offered a not-entirely-convincing warning to stay out of the sewers.
After peering into the storage container, we used a blue rope to descend a curved, slippery wall shaped like a quarter-pipe. A short distance from the bottom, there was a circular red brick tunnel, just under three metres in diameter, stretching into the darkness. It runs almost all the way to Lake Ontario, and we were standing just south of Bloor Street.
Kai had been in this drain before, and as we walked, he served as a tour guide. When he talks about sewers, Kai sounds like a transit expert discussing the city’s sleek new subways, or a baseball fan analyzing the ’92 Blue Jays. This talk is also inflected with the excitement of someone visiting places where few others get to go. In one photo on Kai’s website, he stands silhouetted in front of two tunnels stretching out behind him, just inside the veil of Niagara Falls. Kai says he puts himself in his photos to show the scale of the infrastructure, and that he doesn’t care about bragging rights. Regardless, the message of the photo is a resounding “Check this shit out.”
The relief drain ended abruptly, dropping off and connecting to a chamber holding green water, streaked with scum. The chamber had a high ceiling, and there was a ladder leading up to a balcony on the right side. We had been below ground for over an hour, and Kai estimated that we were only a few hundred metres from the lake. But we weren’t the first to have made the trip. Near the end of the tunnel, someone had spray-painted, “Tried rafting yet?” Another message read, “Go for it.”
It’s possible, but Kai cautioned, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”