The latest series by Brighton-based photographer Joe Pettet-Smith, titled Anarchy Tamed, is an exploration of the Mad Max-themed festival Wasteland Weekend. Taking place every year in the Mojave Desert, between the defunct Nevada Nuclear Test Site – where from 1951 a total of 928 nuclear warheads were tested during the cold war – and Hollywood, the festival is a chance for attendees to live out an imaginary apocalypse, all while dressed like characters from the films.
“During my research for a wider series called Preparations of the Worst-Case Scenario – a series that looks at media-induced paranoia and anxieties around the future – I spotted the festival,” explains Joe. “I wanted to attend to make a picture or two for the main series, but once I got there I ended up shooting a few boxes of film. A lot of the material felt more immediate and reactionary than the series it was intended for, so it became a standalone project.”
Over the course of three days, Joe discovered the great lengths people go to to get into character and immerse themselves in a doomsday fantasy. Though initially intimidated by Wasteland Weekend customs such as shouting “fuck you” as a greeting, it soon became clear that this was a place of absolute inclusion and of brother/sisterhood. “It didn’t matter where you were from or who you were – as long as you were dressed as a character from Mad Max, it was all good,” Joe tells It’s Nice That.
Challenged, however, with getting himself into character, Joe says that these new surroundings and the requirements of attending made the adjustment easier than expected. “I had never been to a desert before so the harsh setting definitely helped me to get into the right mindset. You had to bring all your own food and water, and I couldn’t afford an RV so I was in a tent in 100F heat,” he explains. “I used 12 inch iron spikes to nail my tent down and attached a massive silver blanket over the top to reflect the heat. Also, not having any money, as the project was entirely self-funded, meant that I ate from cans most days. So the survival aspect coupled with mandatory costumes and detailed set design really added to the ‘end-of-the-world’ feeling.”
The photos he took during this time are testament to the commitment of Wasteland Weekend devotees: Football helmets transformed into skull-like props; off-road vehicles reinforced with makeshift bumpers, spikes, and nuclear missiles; and a huge assortment of military-style clothing, weapon holsters, and dust goggles act as impressive tributes to the Mad Max legacy. These efforts were hugely intriguing for Joe, who says he was fascinated by “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.”
But did these people really believe an apocalypse was on the horizon, or was the festival simply an excuse to dress up and participate in costume competitions? “I got the impression that the festival offers an escape from reality and a chance to experience what life might be like after societal and environmental collapse. It’s a cathartic way of dealing with an uncertain future,” Joe tells us. “But it has nothing to do with actual doomsday prepping, though many of the people I spoke to did think the world was going to shit.”
Speaking on his own thoughts concerning the future, Joe explains that he’s actually a total optimist. He believes we will always find a way to tackle climate change, overpopulation and resource depletion. “I align my views with Boserup’s theory that technological advancements will essentially ensure the world doesn’t go to shit. Ultimately, that necessity is the mother of invention.”
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.