In Conversation with Joe Pettet-Smith

Joe Pettet-Smith is a photographer and artist based in Brighton, UK. His personal work is heavily research driven and takes the form of long term self-initiated projects. Joe’s photographs have been commissioned and published by a number of clients including the Guardian, F.T Weekend, Telegraph Magazine and the BBC. Joe’s current research area includes the architecture of simulation, utopia vs dystopia, science vs fiction, civilian training grounds and representations of the future.

Anarchy Tamed

Gravel roads paved by hand carve through the desert, sheets of rusted metal welded together days before the event make up the City Gates, crowds drift through the dust dressed in haphazard combinations of leather, weathered sportswear, and pseudo-military uniforms. This is Wasteland Weekend, the world’s biggest post-apocalyptic festival. Now in its eighth year, it is a festival directly inspired by the Mad Max franchise, located on the edge of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The now permanent festival site sits in between the defunct Nevada Nuclear Test Site – where from 1951 a total of 928 nuclear warheads were tested during the cold war – and Hollywood. This is a place where costumes are mandatory, of warring tribes, Thunderdome battles, and Mad Max vehicle parades. What started out as a few dozen fans of the films getting together in the desert is now 4,000 enthusiasts from around the world drawn to the promise of chaos and freedom (in a safe environment).

BD: Joe, thanks again for taking the time to speak with us about your work! I’d love to start off by hearing about your journey as a photographer and what got you interested in the medium.

JPS: No worries, it’s a pleasure. Photography didn’t actually come along until my late teens. As a kid, school was a struggle. I was distinctly average at everything from sport to academia. After a stint working on a building site with my brother, my grades were released and I found out I had scraped just enough qualifications to get into college. Coincidently the local college had a black and white and colour darkroom, a well-equipped camera kit room, and a passionate technician. He took me under his wing a bit, got me to open up more and was the first person to really believe I had any potential. I had a knack for the hands-on, technical side of photography and became totally obsessed with the darkroom and just wanted to shoot and experiment all the time.

BD: Your subject matter leads to such interesting images, can you speak more on what drew you to focus on ideas of dystopian/utopian societies, science/fiction, post-apocalypse, etc? What were some of your early influences?

JPS: Over the last few years as my visual language has developed, my intentions for what subject matter I pursue have clarified a bit. Looking back on it I think I have always used photography to make sense of the world around me but I also want my work to mean something and to be able to translate complex ideas into a visual form. The best science fiction is based on plausible realities, worlds not too different from our own that are an exaggeration of the current state of things. It uses prophecies of the future to act as an active questioning of the present. That’s true of everything from Star Wars (the perils of one-state colonial power) all the way through to something like Mad Max (what might happen when fossil fuels run out). As an artist working in these post-truth, counterfactual times, science fiction offers a lot of possibilities. I started thinking about post-apocalyptic representations of the future as a direct response and reaction to the endless pessimistic news cycle.

BD: Seeing your series Anarchy Tamed is the first I’d heard of such a festival. I’m interested in how you came across the event all the way from Brighton. Was this by chance or were you searching for similar events to utilize for your work?

JPS: The internet mainly. I had heard about it maybe a year before through researching subject matter for a larger project I am working on called Preparations for the Worst-Case Scenario; a philosophical study of post-apocalyptic themes within entertainment. I had read about Wasteland Weekend as being the biggest Mad Max festival in the world so I knew I had to make work there. It’s a 4,000 capacity festival in the Mojave Desert that sits directly in between Hollywood and the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. To be allowed in you have to be dressed like the world has ended.

BD: What was your experience like working with the participants at Wasteland Weekend?

JPS: Despite the intimidating costumes, armoured vehicles, the “fuckyous” as greetings; the thing that surprised me most was the sense of absolute inclusion, community and the sense of everyone looking out for each other. I went by myself, flew into LA and caught a ride with someone who responded to a post on one of the festival facebook groups. I was almost overwhelmed with how friendly people were when I got there. As an example, on the first day, I hadn’t adjusted to the desert yet and was staggering around with a mixture of heat stroke and jet lag. A couple saw me and ushered me into their camp and sat me down in the shade. When I started to feel better they offered me a margarita on ice and the guy said “We’re at the end of the world, we’ve got to look after our fellow man, we’re an endangered species now” – which kind of sums it up.

BD: After experiencing the way different communities view ideas of the future or post-apocalypse through your work, what are your personal takeaways on the subject matter? How do you see the future unfolding?

JPS: I started making work about contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives to understand why it’s a thing. One of the recurring research questions I’ve been working with is why are films like Mad Max so popular (when it was released the 1979 original was the highest grossing film of all time) and ultimately what that says about the human condition, the society we have built for ourselves and late-capitalism. These narratives are becoming increasingly mainstream, offering not only a window of escape from our day-to-day lives but also a way of dealing with an uncertain future. In general, though, I am unflinchingly optimistic about the future, but perhaps that is just part of my character.

BD: Lastly, what can we expect next for you and your work?

JPS: That’s a good question. I’m still working towards finishing Preparations for the Worst-Case Scenario, a larger, more ambitious project. It’s a slow process, each picture takes weeks and months to negotiate access to photograph each of the sites but it feels like the shooting is nearly finished. I’m starting to think about research for the series after that as well.

To view more of Joe Pettet-Smith’s work please visit his website.