British Journal of Photography

In conversation with Sarah Roberts, July 2019. Read the full article here

Can you tell me about your series Anarchy Tamed? What drew you to photograph the Wasteland Weekend festival?
Anarchy Tamed is a series of pictures about the biggest post-apocalyptic festival in the world. It is the sister project to a larger work-in-progress body of work called Preparations for the Worst-Case Scenario. It’s a pilot project. Like the single before the album comes out. It works with similar themes but the visual language is very different, more immediate, more reactionary than the main series.

I was interested in how a low budget Australian B-Movie from 1979 went on to touch a cultural nerve to such an extent that it inspired a yearly gathering of thousands of people on the other side of the planet to live out the fantasy depicted in the film. Mad Max was set in a near future where society was beginning to collapse after fossil fuels ran out, a situation that doesn’t seem so distant anymore.  

How did you find out about Wasteland Weekend?
Ironically, for a festival that is all about escaping the hyper-connected world we have built for ourselves, I came across it on social media. I had been researching things to photograph for the main series but saw a targeted advert on Facebook for the event in late 2017. Digging a little deeper I found out about this whole festival dedicated to a global community of people dissatisfied with modern societal pressures and wanted an outlet, an escape. It is a week in the desert pretending civilization has collapsed, playing with the idea of returning to a simplified existence only to return to their lives of comfort shortly after. I requested access and shot the work the following year. 

How does this series tie into your other work? What is your interest in dystopian/utopian societies and the post-apocalypse?
I'm interested in these themes in as much as they offer a way of understanding the present. The work is a reaction to the contemporary condition; a time of media induced paranoia, anxieties for the future, information warfare and a growing environmental crisis. 

The festival started out as a few dozen fans of the Mad Max franchise getting together and it now brings together 4,000 enthusiasts - why do you think the festival has garnered so much interest from participants?
I think it is popular because it offers quite a unique experience. Wandering around the festival feels like you are on a film set. The organisers go to great lengths to create immersion in this shared fantasy of the future. Costumes are mandatory, people ditch their given names in favour of a Wasteland Name; a nickname based on their personality traits, all these little elements means you can get lost in the fantasy. Immersion was only really broken when people would get out their immaculate smartphones to take pictures.

What do you think this growth in the number of participants says about society’s collective growing anxieties? 
I think it’s a reflection on what is happening in contemporary Western society. With the growing environmental crisis, global political tensions et al it’s no wonder there is growing uncertainties and unease for the future. As a result, these anxieties have been reflected in the media and experiences we choose to consume. I think people need an outlet that isn’t just escapism but offers psychological respite; literally playing through scenarios to help them deal with this constant state of uncertainty and confusion we find ourselves in.  

Were the festival participants happy to be photographed? Were you welcomed into the community?
Everyone I spoke to wasn’t just happy to be photographed but it was as if they actively wanted to be photographed. I suppose each participant spent so long getting their outfits together that they wanted it documented. On a few occasions wandering around the event site with a camera I had people stop and ask me to take their picture which was something I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know how many portraits I pretended to take.
It definitely felt like I was welcomed in. As much as their demeanour might look intimidating, and despite the “Fuck you” greetings, everyone I met was actually really friendly and inviting, although my British accent might have played a apart in that. 

Did you feel like an outsider when you were shooting the work?
An outsider trying to blend in. It's a tricky dynamic. As much as I was there as an observer trying to engage critically with what I was photographing and what I was trying to say, I definitely had to blend in to the crowd. To be allowed in I had to look like a character from a Mad Max film. I’ve never been very good at dressing up so just looked like a tattier future version of myself, battered Reebok Classics and all. There was an occasion when I was heading up to the 20ft steel entrance gates and I noticed two or three obvious clean clothed media people trying to walk in close behind me as if we were all together. I passed through but they were all turned away by the guards at the gate. It was all pretty surreal but the disguise worked.

What do you predict for the future of the festival? Do you think the number of participants will continue to grow?
The event has been growing organically since it started in 2009 and in more recent years has gotten bigger year on year. The now permanent event site has miles of open desert around it so it could expand outwards indefinitely but from speaking to the organisers their priorities lie in making the event feel as real as possible. The event offers total immersion into a fantasy apocalypse, the only reminder you are at an organised event are the bright blue portaloos dotted around the site.

©British Journal of Photography Magazine 2019 - This text is for research purposes, no copyright infringement is intended.

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