Alex Jackson, British Journal of Photography, August 2017

This is the full transcript of an interview I did with the British Journal of Photography in August 2017 about one of my photographs. The picture, entitled Zombie Apocalypse Survival Experience, Reading 2017 shows the interior of a disused shopping mall and is from my project Preparations for The Worst Case Scenario. In the interview I discuss my research, intentions and the making of the picture. The picture was the runner up in the BJP's Breakthrough Awards 2017 in the single image undergraduate category. For the full article head over to their site

How did you create this single shot? 

Before going into the space I watched just about every Youtube video I could find of the shopping mall’s interior, videos of people running around participating in the events they hold there. Essentially I was location scouting, mapping out the space in my head so that as soon as I was allowed in I would know exactly where I needed to be to get the shot. It’s a 20,000ft square space and due to access restrictions I was given 30 minutes so I didn’t want to waste time wandering around aimlessly. The main hall that features in my picture stood out compared to the other areas, the natural light coming through the skylight above and the peculiar architecture made for an visually stimulating scene.

I knew I wanted large format camera movements to correct the perspective in camera so the camera I used was an Ebony 45S non-foldable field camera. This gave me a generous amount of front-rise to play with and as it’s non-foldable it takes seconds to set up. It is extremely well documented that shooting on large format is usually a slow process, a process that requires contemplation and the utmost consideration of the arrangement of forms on the ground glass. I had taught myself large format camera movements on a previous project of mine, In Defence of Lost Causes, a cataloging of all of the pre-radar WWI concrete structures dotted along the coastline of Britain. I would spend hours composing, focusing, tinkering with the camera movements and re-focusing to get each picture. The shopping mall due to time constraints was not only a contrast to this but also a very welcome challenge; to trust my instincts as a photographer and to take confidence in my own ability to get the shot in a such a short amount of time. I attached the camera to the tripod, pulled the bellows out and literally jogged around the mall with it on my shoulder. The floor was still covered in the ammunition that was fired at the zombies (manic sprinting events staff dressed up like zombies) so I had to be careful not to lose my footing. Every 5 minutes or so the events manager would remind me of how much time I had left. It felt like supermarket sweep, only in a shopping mall and the objective was to get pictures not groceries.

Due to the lighting conditions in the space the final image is actually a composite of several negatives. The dark corridor in the centre of the frame was a full 11 stops darker than the rest of the interior, way beyond the latency of any film stock. The overall effect of the picture wouldn’t be the same if the corridor in the centre was pitch black so I exposed for the main hall and the corridor separately and spliced the composition together in post production.

What were you thinking whilst you took it?

When I entered the main hall I was in total awe, no amount of Youtube clips could prepare me for being utterly overwhelmed like that. I had written my dissertation weeks previous on how the sublime as a philosophical concept can be used to come to a better understanding of the way we react to certain contemporary landscape photographs. I definitely felt a physical and psychological jolt, being so overwhelmed I was lost for words. Through compositional choices I definitely wanted to offset this feeling on to the viewer, to entice but also to overwhelm, ultimately to evoke the sublime response.  

As well as technical considerations, over and over I kept thinking about the cultural significance of what the space means.

Is there a particular story you are trying to tell with this image?

A shopping mall represents the epitome of consumer culture, the capitalist’s dream (Ballard), the last stage in the development of contemporary civilisation (Rostow). The layout and design of any shopping mall is to combine the maximisation of sales with a social aspect bolted on. What could a shopping mall that has been forced to close down, presumably due to lack of sales, come to represent? Perhaps the potential failings of the capitalist system. The 1978 film Dawn of the Dead follows a group of survivors as they take refuge in a shopping mall after a zombie outbreak. The film is to be seen as a blatant satirical comment on consumer culture; the dehumanized zombies represent mindless consumers, the survivors are those who still exercise independent thought. The film saw a remake in 2004 and directly inspired the videogame game series Dead Rising, the fourth instalment of which came out last year. The narrative of zombies in a shopping mall captures public imagination. Thanks to this events company we are now given the opportunity to act out this fantasy with unparalleled levels of immersion.

Why do you think it works best as a single image?

All of the images in the series are intended to act as single images. The series plays with a more literal interpretation of what a photo essay could be; each of the images has its own separate research so I began regarding them as individual case studies that make up a larger narrative. My intention was to take a critical approach to image making, using an analytical visual language to create an index of different incarnations of the same thing; post-apocalyptic narratives within mainstream entertainment.

The shopping mall picture encapsulates everything I would want to reveal about that particular case study. The architecture tells the viewer this is a shopping mall but the details suggest all is not what it seems. The floor is covered with the plastic ammunition from the session that ended before I went in, one of the obstacles in the darkened corridor has a print out of a zombie figure used as target practice. The pillar has a splash of red paint to suggest blood. For this series, this one picture tells the story of the activity that takes place in this space.

How were you able to get access to the space in which this zombie apocalypse event takes place?  

I got access to the space through the generosity of one of the managers there and sheer perseverance. I initially got in contact with them late January of this year, they turned me down a solid 3 times. Each time I would get a rejection email through from the events manager I would call up to discuss the details of their email, my intentions and what I wanted to photograph. The management changed during this time, the space is now used by the police and military during the week for urban combat training so the only time I could feasibly go in was in between sessions which turned out to work in my favour. I had to send through a picture of my university I.D card to prove I was a student. The whole process lasted about 6 weeks until in March I was given a date in April. 

How were you inspired to create the wider series, Preparations for the Worst Case Scenario? Are you concerned with global politics and cultural moods at the moment?

Well, 2016 definitely set the mood. I pay attention to the news, try to stay informed with what’s happening in the world so you could say current affairs informs a lot of what I do. Throughout 2016, whenever something seemingly bad happened, whether that was Brexit, Trump or going through a breakup my mum would say “Well, it’s not the end of the world dear”. In January 2017 on the radio they had a segment about the Doomsday Clock, a system devised by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to evaluate threats to the planet. Midnight on the metaphorical clock represents, well, doomsday. This year they made a song and dance about it because their analysis of our current situation concluded that due to our collective half hearted response to the effects of climate change, Trump getting into power, frictions with the now nuclearly armed North Korea and the rise of nationalism in general amongst other factors means we are now 2 minutes 30 seconds to midnight. This is the closest it has been since 1953 when tensions between the United States and Russia were on the brink of nuclear war.

Alongside these very real dangers I was interested in why post-apocalyptic themes within mainstream entertainment are so popular. Going out of your way to experience what it might be like to outlast civilisation itself, to be one of the lone survivors after some catastrophic world event exercises a very intriguing part of psychology. It could easily be dismissed as mere escapism but through this work I was attempting to probe at something beneath the surface. On the one hand you could say these post-apocalyptic fantasies are what Freud described as Eros, the life affirming survival drive. But on the other, to willingly seek these types of experiences could be considered as a form of voluntary pre-conditioning. Hence the title, Preparations for The Worst Case Scenario.

For instance, perhaps some of the enjoyment we get out of watching a TV show like the immensely popular The Walking Dead is we get to imagine what it might be like to find oneself in that situation. Certain scenes might trigger an emotional response and we use that to test ourselves psychologically. The fascinating thing about immersive live action experiences like the shopping mall is the organisers pride themselves in making it as ‘real’ as possible. They go to great lengths so that the participants are as close as possible to being in that situation.

Are you inspired by science fiction or dystopian novels, films, art etc in this work?

Yes, massively. The only books I read for enjoyment are science fiction novels. For me, good science fiction is based on plausible possibilities, worlds not too dissimilar from our own. Prophecies of the future to act as an active questioning of the present. I read J.G Ballard’s Kingdom Come (2006) some time ago but was compelled to re-read it when research for this project led me to the shopping mall. The novel was his last before he past away in 2008 but throughout his career he was exploring dystopian visions of the future to explore human behaviour and psychology. The way the shopping mall is described in Kingdom Come is fascinating. Shoppers become worshippers, the shopping experience is directly referred to as a religious experience, the 24/7 illumination of the dome calls to the local population. In the book, boredom turns into mindless violence, the population engage in rioting but are all unsure why, they just long for excitement. Kingdom Come opens with the line, “The suburbs dream of violence.” Later, we are told “This is today’s England. Consumerism rules, but people are bored”. This was massively influential in framing an understanding of why a zombie experience event held in a shopping mall is as popular as it is.

Is this a comment on the loneliness or isolation of current society – all these spaces are empty after a seeming destruction?

Nearly all of the films, videogames and books that explore these post-apocalyptic narratives centre around a lone, often male, protagonist. As part of the work I imagined myself as this lone protagonist character venturing alone to collect (visual) artefacts. It made conceptual sense to photograph each scene after the event had taken place, after the paying customers had left, whether that be the stage after a theatre production of a dystopian short story, cinema seating after a showing of Mad Max or the shopping mall after a zombie survival experience.

The case studies all purposefully come from popular culture to make a wider comment on our current situation. I think it is a popular fantasy to indulge in, to imagine yourself at the end of civilization. If it wasn’t then I don’t think video games like Fallout 4 would have been one of the highest grossing video games of the year of its release, or how the original Mad Max was for a long time the most profitable movies of all time. I don’t think events companies would be leasing out shopping malls to run lucrative zombie events if people didn’t want to explore this fantasy.

In Adam Curtis’ recent film HyperNormalisation (2016) he suggests events at the end of the 20th century led to a notable shift in our visions of the future, these were no longer optimistic ideals of industrial progress but ones of pessimism. I think the recent apparent increase in popularity of post-apocalyptic narratives is an extension of this.

What are the themes of this series in your own words?

I think the work uses photography as an analytical tool to explore aspects of popular culture. In doing so it tries to unpick quite a complex part of psychology, namely attempts to understand why these narratives are so prevalent. Simply put, trying to understand dystopia as entertainment is the continuing theme throughout.

How long have you been working on the series?

Not long enough! In a way the research has been going on for a number of years, ideas that I had been playing around with just started to come together. The project began in official context in January 2017. The approach is very slow going, each event, or case study takes weeks of attempting to get access in order to get a single picture. Recently I have found it harder to get access into places. The project is very much in its infancy as a result, I expect it will be a while before it is ready to disseminate.

©The British Journal of Photography 2017 - This text is for research purposes, no copyright infringement is intended.

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