"I'm the Robin Hood of photography": Scaling skyscrapers for thrills and cash

"CBSN: On Assignment" airs Monday, August 14 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS, and on our streaming network, CBSN.


For Victor Thomas, 25, the New York City skyline is a limitless playground. He scales the tallest skyscrapers and captures his strolls along the very edge of buildings -- hundreds of feet off the ground -- in breathtaking photos.

The Brooklyn-based climber is one of New York City's so-called "urban explorers," a growing movement of adventure-seeking photographers who trespass into subway tunnels, bridges and buildings under construction. Beyond the thrill of the climb, for these explorers, Instagram provides a platform to unveil their art and garner thousands of likes.

Thomas thinks himself a digital-age Robin Hood. "I steal views from the rich and I give to the people who are less fortunate," he said. "I'm talking about the people that don't have enough money to get into the penthouse views."

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Victor Thomas at the top of a Brooklyn high-rise construction site, from the drone footage of the climb.

CBS News

To prep for a climb, Thomas does not on rely on special gloves, shoes, pulleys or ropes. He simply pulls out his Canon DSLR camera from his backpack. Scrolling through Thomas' Instagram feed, Vic.Invades, there are rows of photos showing his feet hanging off of high-rises, and photos of him with his tripod and camera. At times he is joined by other explorers as well.

For many urban explorers -- sometimes referred to as the UrbEx community -- the climbs are worth the risks, especially when they are able to cash in on wearing a brand name in their photos. Corporate sponsors tend to turn a blind eye to the risks involved. In one photo, Thomas hangs his feet off a bridge tower high above the traffic lanes, flaunting a pair of Converse sneakers. He claims that even though the brand didn't commission the photo, they paid him $750.00 for the post.

#readyformore scenic views from places many can only dream to visit. @converse #ChuckII

A post shared by INVADES🔑 (@vic.invades) on

"They didn't tell me to do it," Thomas said. "It was more like 'Victor, go out and do what you do,' so I gave it a shot and they paid me for it."

While "CBSN: On Assignment" reached out to Converse for an interview, the company responded with a statement: "While we encourage all people to follow their passions, we do not advocate nor encourage illegal practices."

Another leading urban explorer, Vitaliy Raskalov, has made some money off his climbs. Raskalov, who is from Ukraine, has more than 260,000 followers on Instagram. He's infamously climbed buildings and bridges from New York City to Hong Kong to Russia. He, along with Vadim Makhorov, climbed the Shanghai Tower in China, close to 2,100 feet high. The video alone has ranked in 63 million views on Youtube. The duo founded the brand "On The Roofs" and remain among the most daring and famous of personalities in the rooftopping underworld. Raskalov has taken photos for Timberland, and was even featured in a Canon ad with Makhorov.

But the dangers are real. People have fallen to their deaths trying to capture the perfect shot.

CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil caught a glimpse of urban explorers in action in June. He watched from the ground as Thomas and a friend named Josh scrambled up a 400-foot building -- a soon-to-be luxury residential tower under construction in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

As Thomas put it: "This is all one big jungle gym, the city. I take advantage of it."