Deep below Paris’ winding streets lies a vast network of subterranean tunnels and caverns stretching more than 300 miles/777 kilometers. Formerly mines and quarries, the catacombs became a dumping ground for human remains in 1786 when Paris’ cemeteries began to overflow from generations of the dead. The catacombs have had many uses over the centuries, including housing members of the French Resistance and a German bunker during World War II.
Now Paris’ Catacombs are explored by small groups of urban adventure seekers and partiers called Cataphiles. They illegally descend into the tunnels to explore, dig, take part in parties — some of which last for days — and place new art and graffiti on the walls. Entering through the city's sewer systems, metro tunnels and other secret entrances begins a game of cat and mouse between the Cataphiles and the French police unit tasked with patrolling the tunnels, the Catafics.
For years I have wanted to explore the Catacombs of Paris but have not been able to get access, as it is even very difficult for most Parisians to get connected with a group willing to take them into the tunnels. On a trip last year I met up with a group of Cataphiles who offered to bring me into their world and allow me to photograph a two-day descent into the Catacombs.
We met late on a Friday night at a house party in central Paris. A five story climb led to an old apartment packed so full of people it took them two minutes to shift themselves around to get the front door open and allow us in. Everyone at the party knew one another and most of them were Cataphiles, although our group for the evening only consisted of eight people.
At midnight, the group met outside and reviewed their maps and made an equipment check, as broken flashlights, lack of food and water, and a host of otherwise minor inconveniences can be disastrous in the underground maze. When everything was sorted out we hopped on the final train of the night to the outskirts of Paris.
A manhole cover leads to a ladder descending deep under the streets of Paris and into the Catacombs.
A Cataphile crawls through a dangerous, narrow passageway leading to a secret corridor and tomb within the Catacombs.
A corridor filled with human remains.
Cataphiles’ headlamps illuminate a passageway as they navigate through the deep water sometimes found in the Catacombs.
Human bones and skulls litter a tunnel floor.
Cataphiles consult a map in a secret room deep within the catacombs. Many rooms are decorated with candle chandeliers, which the Cataphiles place fresh candles in and light for the next group that may discover the room.
A close-up of a map of the Catacombs showing a web of corridors and rooms. Maps are made and updated by the Cataphiles and placed on secret websites distributed within the community.
A group of Cataphiles break from exploration to drink wine, listen to music, cook dinner over an open fire and talk with others whom they have met underground.
A fire-breather performs during an underground party.
A magician performs a card trick for partygoers.
The mud and water-soaked exploration boots of a group of Cataphiles.
Several groups of Cataphiles meet up in an underground chamber for an impromptu underground party.
A catacomb guide, identified by a mobile phone attached to computer speakers hanging from his neck. Guides, who work illegally and without pay because they love the Catacombs, play music and dance through the tunnels, leading groups of varying numbers through the intricate maze of corridors and chambers.
A Cataphile illuminated by his headlamp.
Skull shaped candle holders carved into the wall of an underground chamber.
Carvings indicating the date of one of the tunnels. Dates, street names, intersections and other information dating back centuries are carved into the walls of the Catacombs.
A Cataphile consults a map, illuminated by a small fire.
Graffiti art has been a tradition in the Catacombs dating back to the 18th century. Cataphiles uphold this tradition by painting on and carving into the tunnel walls and leaving tracts, drawings, information and humor that they hide in various places for each other to find and collect. In this photo, a graffiti artist sprays new work onto one of the walls. He agreed to have his photo taken only if his face was hidden.
Spray paint cans scattered on the floor as a new mural is painted on the tunnel walls. Cataphile ethics require individuals and groups to remove all their garbage from the tunnels when they leave and overall these guidelines are followed.
A fresh mural painted on a Catacomb wall.
One of hundreds of paintings on the rock walls of one of the tunnels.
A mural on one of the walls.
A Cataphile scales the walls of an underground corridor in hopes of discovering secret passageways or entrances.
Cataphiles sleep in a hidden chamber deep within the Catacombs after exploring and partying overnight
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