What came first, did you take the photos for the book or did you already have some of the photos?
I’ve been photographing music for a while now, over ten years and there was a stage where I was getting a little bit jaded with the whole situation of how music photographers were treated. I was always a music fan first and foremost, before I was a photographer, so I knew what it was like to feel that excitement to be in the front of a mosh pit and to feel that anxiety before your favourite band came on stage, I wanted to capture that in some way. There was one music festival here in Australia, the sadly long gone Big Day Out, where I started photographing the crowds.
It took a little bit of trial and error to figure out how I wanted to display these shots. At first I was approaching people and photographing them as portraits, but looking back on those shots they were a little bit naff, a little bit forced and it was the photographs that were untrained and fly on the wall that I guess went back to that saying “the very act of observation changes that of which is being observed.” As soon as these people knew they were being photographed, their body language changed and everything in between changed. I wanted to photograph real life situations, how I remembered it to be.
I remember looking back, going through the festival photos and I was constantly surprised at what I’d captured; it goes back to the saying that “reality is stranger than fiction,” because you just can’t make these shots up; the characters that you come across in a mosh pit in all parts of the world, in Australia, or France or Germany. I was really excited about the act of discovery. So that’s when I decided this is a new project, I chose to really focus every festival I shoot from then on, on the crowd.
When working your way around a festival site, what captures your attention the most for a photo?
I’m looking for participation, I’m looking for people who have let go of their inhibitions and let go of their self-identity in a way, who are connecting to the music in the purest form and that’s what I was looking for when I was photographing.
Why festival crowds and not concert crowds, what was the appeal?
The festival crowds was in daylight, it gave me a lot better lighting to get my shots and I guess it’s as simple as that. In a concert it’s all indoors and you’ve only really got the concert lighting to focus on people.
However there were some situations at a few festivals where I ended up with an on camera flash and I was just shooting from waist level, just walking around. I think it was Reading Festival at one of the electronic stages, at maybe 1am, where everyone had had their dose of sun, drugs and booze and they were all a little bit lost in the music, they didn’t know where they were, their problems in life, everything was lost in the moment, the music and the space they occupied. I was really interested in that.
With the European festivals, especially the three day ones, you really get that sense of community, the ability to let go of everything, all your inhibitions. You are locked in, probably not showering for three days, I know I didn’t. Here in Australia a lot of the music festivals are one day only and you don’t get that community feel.
Why did you choose to have a black and white photo book and not use colour?
I think because I was shooting at multiple venues, in multiple countries and there were a lot of colour clashes. In some shots there were colours that were conflicting and being a bit of an anal photographer with detail, I just couldn’t have a green foreground with someone wearing an orange vest! Also because it’s heavy metal festivals and a nice bright green grassy knoll is not very metal. Looking back on it, black and white always has that sense of nostalgia, it can be anyplace anywhere.
Do you know how many photos you started with and did you have a limit as to how many you could include?
This was shot over a five year period, in five countries and at multiple festivals, I think I might have gone through close to 20,000 images. There was one stage when I was getting the book ready, I printed all of the selections that I could possibly have in the book as 6×4 prints, which I stuck all over my bedroom wall. It was quite a sight, there were hundreds of photographs all over the wall, trying to make sense of them, but after meeting with a few pretty amazing photographers and chatting to them about the direction of the book, what’s important and the general consensus was less is more. The art of a photographer I think, is choosing a really solid set of images that tell a story. Who really has time to go through a 500 page book? It’s just labour intensive, you want to leave people wanting more.
Many photographers might be wary of entering the pit with their expensive camera equipment, did
you incur much damage in the festival mosh pits with your camera?
Absolutely; my camera at the time was an absolute battle tank. I had most of it wrapped up in black gaffer tape, some bits were melted off by the sun, but owning a camera like that I wasn’t afraid to get it dirty and to go into the mosh pits and be part of the crowd.
At Wacken festival one year there was a huge downpour and the same with Primavera in Spain, I saw those opportunities as a chance to go in and get something different, something very unique that other photographers might be too afraid to go and get, because as a fan of the music you are not going to shy away from the action of those moments, you are going to meet it head on, you are going to go and slide in the mud and I wanted to capture those moments.
I have had lots of booze thrown on my camera. I remember shooting one show and I’m in my own little space, I looked up and I saw this cup just lobbed in the air and it was in disbelief actually, I was suspended and I just watched this cup being lobbed in the air and it landed…in slow motion…straight onto my camera. Why didn’t I move? Everything just slowed down, I was transfixed by this cup full of booze and bam right on my camera. I had all the opportunity to move but sometimes you’ve just got to take in the moment.
Do you have a favourite photo in the book?
I guess my favourites are moments you wouldn’t expect to see. There’s one with a girl with all this fake blood down her face, she’s really distressed and grabbing her boyfriend, who has all this blood coming down his ear; they were all dressed up because it was like a day of the dead theme at one of the festivals, but you don’t know that by looking at it and it raises a lot of questions – Is she hurt? What happened? What is going on? – You don’t know that looking at the image. I think good photography instead of giving you answers gives you questions.
There’s another photo where a young guy in full black metal face paint, holding a plastic sword with a skull handle is surrounded by teenage girls and someone’s mum. It is a ‘what the fuck’ moment and to top it off there’s this guy turning his head looking at him and his expression is exactly that ‘what the fuck’, so it’s very comical but in a sense, it just makes you have a little chuckle to yourself.
What is your go to camera and lens?
At that point I had been using the same camera for about five or six years, it was a Nikon D3. Before I purchased that digital camera, I was shooting everything with a really old film camera. Digital was in its infancy and couldn’t handle the live concert lighting, high ISO performance but after that camera copped it, I was just hiring cameras. If it’s a hire camera you don’t have to worry about damaging it so much. I wouldn’t bring my own AU$8,000 camera to a concert like that, obviously you are in mosh pits, in walls of death.
I remember one situation I was in, photographing Wacken festival the night after that big storm and there was a massive puddle of mud; Rammstein were playing and there were heaps of crowd surfers coming through – I guess this is what I love about these European festivals is that there’s such a strong sense of community, everyone’s looking out for each other – there’s this massive pile of mud and there were a few concert goers who had appointed themselves as the guys who would help crowd surfers across this puddle of mud to the other level of the crowd. If this was Australia these guys would have pummelled the other guys into the mud. In Germany they took it upon themselves to carry them across and as soon as they finished with one person, they would run back and start with the next crowd surfer. This continued for the entire set. Also, I remember someone splashed a load of mud on my camera, the girl next to me pulls out a tissue and wipes the mud off my lens and I’m just like what is going on?
What is your advice or top tip for aspiring festival/concert photographers?
The glory days of concert photography are over, it’s very hard to make living from it. My number one tip is to be passionate about what you are shooting, photograph the bands you love because you want to get close and you want to get photographs of them.
The other tip is invest in good gear, you’re going to need to photograph at high shutter speeds especially metal acts because you want to capture that action, that’s what sells, action shots. Also look for shots that are unusual, different and carry atmosphere. Don’t have a cluttered background and use a shallower aperture so you can use the light, but also you can differentiate your subject from the surroundings.