Thousands Met in the California Desert to Live Out Post-Apocalyptic ‘Mad Max’ Fantasies. A Photographer Was There to Capture the Action

Joe Pettet-Smith thought he was only there to get one photo.

Thunder Cat (left) and Possum (right) outside the City Gates. Photo by Joe Pettet-Smith.
Thunder Cat (left) and Possum (right) outside the City Gates. Photo by Joe Pettet-Smith.

Every September, thousands of people gather in the Mojave Desert outside of California City, California. They don DIY masks, chains, sand-scraped leather pants, and football pads retrofitted with spikes. They shoot up huge clouds of sand in beaten-up cars. They play with fake guns and drink beer.

This is Wasteland Weekend, the world’s largest post-apocalyptic-themed festival where cos-players erect a temporary community inspired by George Miller’s Mad Max films. It’s Burning Man meets the Thunder Dome. 

Last year, young British photographer Joe Pettet-Smith visited the festival, two large analog cameras in tow. He was only hoping to get one good shot. He ended up with an entire portfolio of striking portraits, providing a look into the people behind this curious festival the way few have before. 

Pettet-Smith came across Wasteland Weekend when researching sites to shoot for Preparations for the Worst-Case Scenario, his series based on the cultural obsession with doomsday scenarios, looking at entertainment events that imagine our world in the wake of some grave—and often fictitious—disaster: a nuclear holocaust, maybe, or an alien takeover. The project has taken him everywhere from an escape room overrun by zombies to the “War of the Worlds” exhibit at Disneyland.  

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

“It’s about psychology,” the artist tells artnet News. “It’s about how we deal with the uncertainty of the future and the ways in which that’s reflected in the things we choose to do for fun.” 

Citing anxiety over issues like Brexit and climate change, Pettet-Smith explains that our interest in the future right now is immense. He also notes the tendency, at least in media, to imagine a time beyond our own in almost exclusively bleak terms. That’s why, when he first learned about Wasteland Weekend, he knew immediately that he had to experience it.

Pettet-Smith had never been to the US when he made the trip. He had never even camped or been to the desert, and he certainly didn’t own any post-apocalyptic apparel. He flew into LA and made his way north after connecting with a fellow Wastelander over Facebook. Knowing that he had to dress up to be allowed in, he stopped by an army surplus store and picked up some vintage military-grade motorcycle goggles and a camo vest. He stashed rolls of film in the loops meant to hold shotgun shells. He was nervous.

But when he got there, those nerves quickly dissipated.

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

“It’s a really harsh environment and they looked intimidating, but as soon as you get them chatting, they were really friendly and inviting,” said Pettet-Smith. “It felt like an army of misfits. Some people were genuinely anti-establishment anarchists who I have no doubt would be comfortable if civilization did break down. Others were just people who liked to go to cosplay events.” In almost every case, he explains, his subjects had so much pride in their getups that they were more than happy to show them off before his camera.

Not long after the artist arrived, a group of fellow campers noticed that he was getting a little woozy—a product of the heat, the jet-lag, the exhaustion. They sat him down and gave him an icy margarita. 

See more images from Pettet-Smith’s Wasteland Weekend series, titled “Anarchy Tamed,” below.

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith

© Joe Pettet-Smith.

© Joe Pettet-Smith


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