Antony Cairns, Lottie Davies, Thomas Brown, Florence Goupil, and River Claure all navigate the dystopia through both image and text
Dystopia, the mirrored antonym of a Utopia, looks different for everyone. Our world is a complex one, filled with good and bad, life and death. The dystopia can be imaginary, a metaphor for future failures and mistakes. It can also be literal, a descriptor for what we have built. How far are we from a dystopia, and how can we stop it?
Every second we enter a new world as the old one fades away. Stories are lost, memories fade, and history is rewritten. It can become difficult to gauge the state of a world that keeps spinning, a world that cannot stop. The last century has pushed humanity to places that can be described as both utopian and dystopian, a space where all things are possible. Anxieties for the future force us to consider the roles we play in this world, and the technologies we built to develop it. We are living in the brave new world, where do we go from here?
This is an artwork showing the 2nd Tunnel in Los Angeles. A famous location in Hollywood and a place I always wanted to photograph after seeing it in Blade Runner (1982), the film that is based on the Philip K dick novel ‘Do Andriods dream of electric sheep’.
It is here where the ideology of dystopia lives, within fictional futures telling stories of how society has fragmented and injustice and hardship have taken over. Yet a dystopian landscape usually only exists within the frame of a world which is trying to become utopian, and within this world there will always be elements that act as the antonym of the utopia.
I made this photograph in early 2009, when the euphemistically-named ‘credit crunch’ had just begun. There was a feeling of tense resignation in the air – forces beyond our control were about to screw us all over and we weren’t quite sure in what way, or how bad it could be. Financial mismanagement and good old-fashioned greed bore fruit soon after in the global recession which we all remember fondly I’m sure.
That feeling of nebulous powerlessness was behind the making of this image, while it was also directly inspired by the memory of a nightmare, in which a young woman contributed to my Memories and Nightmares series. The crux of her story was that she dreamt her baby son was being suffocated by soot. This deeply upsetting account put me in mind of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I had recently read, and so the stories become conflated and reimagined in my mind.
The location is a history library, which is not accidental. Will we never learn from what went before, the things that humans have done for generations. I have little faith in humankind to act other than in self-interest on a grand scale, and if we become extinct it will be no sooner than we deserve. But, I think that our generation’s dystopia isn’t going to be some glamorous sci-fi future where rugged survivalists roam a post-apocalyptic wasteland – we will create it without even noticing, and I’m not sure we will recognise it when it’s here.
Suddenly, although we could or should have seen it coming, we found ourselves in our own dystopia, but it wasn’t like the movies, nothing as clear cut as that. Switching overnight from confusion to sheltering in place, forced to find sanctuary from real yet intangible threats of disease, unemployment, boredom. Our normal safe havens and go-to’s all posed a danger, our hubs, friends, families and places of physical community, all unavailable at this current time.
The boundary between humanity and technology took another blurring. My kids began to think their grandparents lived inside the FaceTime screen. Physical locations, and therefore distance, became universal, everyone was equally far away, and on the flip was equally easy to contact, as they were always in.
My device easily allowed me to become an avatar, to navigate and connect with my global community – a community of image makers – to engage where before I was somewhat reclusive. I have met so many wonderful people this year, they have supported and inspired me, and I’m thankful for that. It’s easy to be closed and keep one arm over your work for fear of someone stealing your golden idea, but a strong community is good for everyone.
Where human perception ends, there lives the silence that calls us tirelessly every day. It is said that there was a time when the Light was for everyone. But the restless noise of time extinguished our consciences. The world is over now. We will return to the darkness from where we came.
Photography is a possibility, it is the encounter of the visible and the invisible. The black and white photo is maybe the most intimate expression, which originates in our dreams, in our childhood memories and in the magical stories of the Native Americans that have touched us. Stories that have relieved me from the description we have been given about the world, since we were children.
One time I heard a phrase that changed my approach. “Everything in nature has a spirit”. However, if we are destroying nature, what will remain, I ask myself. Everything we imagine and think comes from destruction. But the end of one world is the beginning of a new one.
This is why photography is for me the possibility of seeing beyond our perception, to approach other worlds.
The first weeks of the pandemic arrived. The paranoia reached its peak. People in Bolivia found themselves buying masks in unnecessary quantities, causing a shortage in many cities. The consequence? Many started to make their own masks, masks made of plastic bottles, reused objects that became an artifact that would protect them from the virus. Somehow, in these times that we are living, covering our faces is part of daily life. The mask is no longer a ritual or artistic practice.
When going out to the streets, and observing people with their face half covered, I sense how we all were losing part of our personal particularites in the public space. Our capacity of recognising others, and being recognised, was changing. In a dystopian world, where we have to use a mask to protect us from the virus, finding the way to not lose individuality would be an act of salvation.
It is this reflection that leads me to the idea of making our own masks with my family. I am not talking about masks to go out in public, or masks that would protect us from the virus, but masks that would make us ponder on the personal, social and family recognition that we have at this time, ones that protect us from the loss of our individuality.
This is a photograph of my grandma Ema. She says she is a “rabbit mom.”
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.