Vinca Petersen interviewed by Sheryl Garratt
No matter how controlled a society or system, no matter how conformist its people, there are always cracks, faultlines, overlooked spaces in the margins where people have been left behind, or choose to break away from the norm and experiment with different ways of being. These are the spaces Vinca Petersen has always felt most at home, the people and places she chooses to feature in her work as an artist.
‘Whether it’s my friends, or raves, or Romanians getting about with a horse and cart, they’ve always been the things that I think are beautiful, that I want to look at,’ she says.
Sometimes, forces converge and these cracks open wide, or the edges come into sharper focus and start to fill out the frame. Often, we’re talking mere moments Raves&Riots: a brief rush of freedom and possibility in the middle of a crowded rave, a riot or a demonstration. Other times, it can grow into movements, markers for social or cultural change: Rosa Parks not giving her seat up on the bus, or New York’s LBGT community fighting back outside the Stonewall Inn instead of giving in to yet another police raid; hippies in Haight Ashbury, or punk anarchy in the UK.
One such movement exploded in Britain at the end of the 1980s. Brewed from a heady cocktail of MDMA, house music, and youthful rebellion against the long, grey reign of Thatcher and Major, at its peak in the summer of 1989, the acid house/rave scene saw crowds of 25,000 people defying the police to dance in illegal all-night parties. Like most British teenagers, Vinca was swept up into this maelstrom; unlike most, she also took her camera along, to record it.
She has always taken photographs. She got her first camera at the age of seven or eight and began taking blurry photos of her dad drinking whisky, or half of the family car. In her turbulent teenage years, it became her way of making sense of the world, a kind of visual diary. ‘It’s a way of recording memories,’ she explains. ‘I remember the things I experience very visually, I’ve realised.’
In 1990, at the age of 17 she moved to London, telling her parents she was going to art school. Instead, she moved into a squat, got involved in alternative politics as well as the rave/free party scene, and occasionally worked as a model in edgy fashion spreads and music videos. Through this she met the influential photographer Corinne Day, who became a mentor of sorts, occasionally giving Vinca cameras, film, and giving her more confidence to continue taking her pictures.
In the meantime, the initial euphoric anarchy of the rave scene was contained, commercialised and assimilated back into the mainstream as these movements always are, with its more extreme elements pushed back into the margins. A new Criminal Justice Bill was introduced in Parliament to tidy up these loose ends, with clauses designed to make life far more difficult for the squatters, travellers and free party promoters who were Vinca’s friends.
When it became law in 1994, many of them left the UK for a nomadic life in mainland Europe. Vinca soon joined them, remaining on the road until a few months before her son was born in 2005. They lived in trucks, setting up free parties in the countryside near urban areas, bringing a little mayhem and magic wherever they went. Throughout, Vinca took photographs, eventually collecting them into a book, No System.
Published by Steidl in 1999 (to be reissued in 2018), the book provides a unique view into a largely hidden world. Vinca is no voyeur, intruding with her camera to examine and record. She is an insider, and her pictures are warm, intimate, complicit. Her eye is that of a participant, not a voyeur. But though her gaze is affectionate, it is also unflinching. As an artist, she is uncompromising: she doesn’t idealise what she sees. These liminal spaces are rarely neat and tidy; they’re not always pretty. But like all places where human beings play, they can be inspiring, joyful, fun, and she captures that, too.
There are more books to come, the next covering her teenage years in London. Vinca’s pictures tell stories, which is why they tend to work better when collected into groups. She has a sharp eye for telling details: the shadow of an AK47 burned into a sunbed in Ghana, airplane trails accidentally making an anarchy sign in the sky, the sheer joy on the face of a disabled man playing with volunteers in the Ukraine.
Her photography is human and compassionate and most of all, joyful: she has a way of capturing those brief moments of freedom and possibility, of recording people at play.
After the birth of her son Archie, Vinca settled down in Ramsgate, on the east Kent coast. (After one last, epic journey overland to Ghana, recorded in Africa with Bouncy Castle). She did a Fine Art degree, and continued working as a prop designer – the trade that has supported her art for some 20 years. From necessity, now that her son is in school, her journeys have been shorter, but she has still created doorways back into that world through her charity/social sculpture experiment Future Youth Project, which takes volunteers from the UK on ‘physical and emotional journeys’ to help – and play with – people in need across Europe.
Whether she is dressing up for a demo or party, planning a journey, working on her art or raising money for Future Youth Project, there’s always a sense of playfulness and fun in Vinca’s work. There is, for instance, her alter ego ArtNurse, who popped up at the 2010 Paris Photo festival and subsequently at Arles Photo and Brighton Photo Fringe dispensing gold glitter and administering vodka shots by syringe as well as dancing with strangers and selling postcards to raise funds for FYP.
‘We’re not free, the way society is set up now. So my way of feeling free is to make fun, to play. It’s like jesting. I think that’s been taken away from images of people, and images of women especially. I don’t often see images of women looking comfortable and happy, in a non-extreme way. I want my pictures to be edgy and interesting, but people don’t have that much fun any more. So joy, and fun. That’s what’s important.’
When the Criminal Justice Act became law in 1994, it felt like everything changed, massively. Amongst my friends, there was a collective feeling of, ‘Oh right. We’re going to have to leave England.’ And I was ready to leave. Living in a truck, or in squats around Europe, there was a real sense of belonging, of possibility.
I didn’t care about the mess, and the dirt. I liked the earthiness of it all. I loved the practicalities of travelling: finding somewhere to park for the night, finding water, going to a new supermarket to buy food and then all cooking together. For me, it was all about a need for community. The parties were incidental, really, a way of earning money. Although it was great to just to dance all night, and have so many local people coming up to you saying, ‘This is wonderful, this is amazing!’
Looking at the pictures now, there’s something Other about them: a sense of space, of time paused. There are no screens, no iPhones. The whole travellers scene is quite intense, and people would criticise me for taking so many pictures: ‘You can’t live in the moment, because you’ve always got this thing between you and the moment.’ Because obviously, that’s what a photograph represents: a recording of the moment for another point in time. I used to struggle with that, but I also knew I was witnessing something amazing. So I was documenting it, but for myself, mainly, so I could remember it. And for my friends, but really not beyond that.
Then of course over the years, everyone started asking me for copies. I would make these funny little albums or boxes of photographs, and it was quite expensive. I couldn’t keep doing it. So in 1999 I collected them into a book, No System, and said it could be published on the condition that I designed it, sold for less than £10 so even a junkie could buy one, and I had to have free copies for anyone in it that wanted one. And after I it together, I went back on the road for a year and just asked everyone in it for their permission. They all had the same reaction: ‘No, no, no! But… yes, if you give me one.’
By 2003 I’d been with my partner, Zain, for some time. We were thinking about having a child, which for me meant settling down for a while. So to get that wanderlust out of us for a few years, we bought a beautiful old 1987 Land Cruiser, and drove to Ghana. We didn’t plan it, particularly: we just got a few maps.
But I wanted to give back to the people we met, so I tried to think of an inexhaustible form of aid to take. With condoms, footballs or whatever, there would always be a point where we ran out – probably at the furthest point away, where they were needed most. Then I remembered a traveller group who had taken a bouncy castle with them to India, and I got Hardy Blechman – from the fashion label Maharishi – to sponsor one for us. We called it Laughter Aid.
We drove down through France and Morocco, meeting brilliant people on the way, then across the Sahara sharing a guide with a group of French boys in a Ford Escort. There are no roads, and with the weight of the castle and their ill-equipped car, we had to dig one of us out of the sand about every 300 yards! Afterwards, we met a French couple who had even snapped their toothbrushes in half to lighten the load across the desert. When I said we’d carried a bouncy castle, they just walked off, unable to compute it.
But it worked really well. We’d stop at schools and orphanages on the way, we’d put it up, and the kids would get so excited. They would bounce and bounce on it, and even after we’d turned it off, they’d carry on jumping until it was completely flat. It went down a storm. It still does – we took it to Romania in 2014, for instance, where it entertained children who were living on the street, in isolated villages, or in Roma communities.
It took us three months to get to the coast of Ghana, and we had a cocktail on the beach to celebrate. That’s when I noticed the silhouette of an AK47 burned into the back of my sunbed – they’d obviously stashed their guns in with the beds, and the sun had marked its outline into the fabric.
Normally, people make the trip, sell their vehicle and fly back home. But we had our dog with us, and the bouncy castle. So we just turned around and drove back the way we came.
In 2000, I put on an exhibition of some of my sound system pictures in London. It was coming up to the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, so I asked people to bring aid, saying we’d drive it to the Ukraine. But we ended up with far too much stuff to fit in my transit van. So we bought two 7.5-tonne lorries, and we took along this motley crew of people. As usual, it was total chaos!
But we eventually got to Chernobyl and offloaded the aid we’d bought, then visited children’s homes and places in the area to hear about the problems they were facing. I had a meltdown because I suddenly felt that it was all about my ego, and my wanderlust had made me want to drive there, rather than just sending the money we’d raised. But one of the carers said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t stop coming.’
Depression is a huge problem amongst the young in the Ukraine, she told me. The families are very poor, the kids work in the fields with their parents seven days a week, and often they don’t even know how to play. She said that our visit was better than food, or money: ‘For months before, I can talk about these people who are driving from England, just for them, and it raises their spirits. They’ll remember it for the rest of their life.’
That’s when I decided to keep doing these convoys, although later we would take volunteers, and bring money instead of aid.
Afterwards, the others drove back to England in one truck, while my friend Clare and I went to have a look around in the other. We wanted to go to Yalta, because we’d heard it was the Ibiza of the East. So we drove down to Odessa – where we’d been told it was dangerous to go, as two women in an English truck – and we met some fishermen who had this little yard by the river. They said they’d look after our truck for couple of weeks, so we got the train the rest of the way. The final pictures are from the beach there.
When my son Archie was born, I settled in Ramsgate, on the Kent coast, and after a couple of years I did a Fine Art degree. I was reading about Joseph Beuys, and his ideas on social sculpture, and thinking about all these separate threads in my life: my travelling, my son, my photography, and this desire to do humanitarian work. And I decided to bring them all together as an art piece, Future Youth Project.
We raised money by doing a 70-mile sponsored walk along the South Downs Way, and we bought a minibus. The idea was to take people to the Ukraine on this bus, which takes about seven days. They’d have an amazing experience on the way, and then they would volunteer, which makes them feel good about themselves. And the people at the other end would have an amazing time, because we’d arrived to help them. And I felt good for organising it, so everyone wins: there are no martyrs, and no angels, which is important.
We went to Crimea, to a huge, old Menonite farmstead, in the middle of the flat, endless grassland of the Russian Steppes. In the 1950s it had been turned into a home for people with disabilities. A charity had gained access to it a couple of years before, and found all these children and adults tied up, often naked, in dark rooms on plastic mattresses. By the time we got there it was slightly better, but it was still pretty bad.
The adult men and teenage boys were just in a mess. You had everything from boys who were just blind to very severely disabled men literally lying on the dirt on the floor. There was a lot of rocking, a lot of institutional behaviours, nothing at all for them to do. When the food came out, all of the bullies would grab it. It was horrendous.
So we decided that we would support these 47 disabled men. Since 2013 we’ve employed an educator, who goes in five days a week, and gives them things to do. They do drawing, embroidery, singing. Some of them have learned to write. They each have a box with their name on, and the whole atmosphere of the place has changed, because they’re seen as people now.
We’ve been back a couple of times with a bus full of volunteers. We take them swimming in a lake, and we play the most amazing football matches, when people end up chewing the ball. It’s become self-perpetuating now, and some of the volunteers now go out there on their own. It’s great because it gives them a lot of confidence too: they don’t tend to be people who would normally volunteer.
Unlike many of the stories here, this isn’t based on any one particular journey. They’re from all over Europe: the Czech Republic, Italy, England. It’s more about capturing a mood, a moment.
To me, the same thing sometimes happens on a demonstration as in an illegal rave. They’re both slightly edgy gatherings. Especially if a demonstration turns into a riot, you get the same sense that you’re free, suddenly, from everything. It becomes lawless, you get a sense of the normal world being suspended, and you experience these brief, totally free moments. It’s really important, I think.
It’s always about this idea of an in-between place. And in that place, for me what’s always been really important is humour. My way of dealing with the world is to make fun, to play. So I would always dress up to go to demos, I’d pinch policeman’s bums, and have fun in those situations.
People don’t have that much fun any more. Young people are so grown-up in the way they behave now, and young women especially don’t seem to have many choices: you’re either sexy and doll-like, or you’re hardcore. So I’m trying to capture a sense of joy in these pictures. It’s about making life fun.
When the war broke out in Ukraine, we were advised not to go there with aid, so we took a bus full of volunteers to Romania instead. We went to a very poor and rural area, Podu Turcului, and worked with a charity that provides care, education and fun for children who lack all of those things.
In a way, I shouldn’t have gone. No one really noticed, but I was going through the motions, driving this bus. I was just exhausted at the time, and as a result I felt very detached from the people around me.
So I did nearly all of the driving, which was great, because I had my own headspace. When we reached Romania, there were loads of beautiful horses and carts everywhere. Every time I passed one, I would just stick my hand out with the camera – and this series of photographs happened. It’s just really lovely to look at one after the other.
Romania has changed a lot. There’s a lot of advertising there now, and it feels like it has been increasingly swallowed up by Europe. But these people still seemed to be slightly on the fringes of it all, left behind. Which is why I felt drawn to them. Although I’m sure they’d rather have a tractor or a car!