Emily Dodd-Noble captures intimacy and hedonism in Berlin’s underground rave scene

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Titled 72 Hours – a tribute to the length of the parties – Dodd-Noble’s project is a snapshot into the city’s underground raves in the midst of the Covid-19

In December 2020, Emily Dodd-Noble left the UK for Berlin. At 22, she’d just completed her bachelor’s degree in fine art and was bursting with creativity. Like many mid-pandemic, she was feeling stagnant living back at home with family. She’d fallen in love with Berlin on a trip two years prior, doing “that clichéd thing” of discovering the city through its nightlife: “I was hooked on the energy. There was something really tangible about it. Berlin felt like a place I could thrive in.”

But in the midst of lockdown, the Berlin she landed in was a different place entirely. “The city felt like a skeleton of its former self,” she recalls from her living room in Kreuzberg. “The clubs had closed their doors, and it seemed as if a never-ending winter had descended.” After a month spent photographing the empty ice-covered streets, she was put in touch with a mutual friend who had connections in the underground rave scene.

One freezing night in January, film camera in hand, she descended into an abandoned basement club on the border of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain in old East Berlin, and discovered a hidden pocket of the city where the music hadn’t stopped. The bass reverberated off distressed concrete walls, and dancers moved hard and fast on broken tiles. “I’m pretty sure my expression was–,” she opens her mouth and widens her eyes in awe. “There was this energy radiating off people like steam. It was immense. It was a space where you could just let go.”

© Emily Dodd Noble.
© Emily Dodd Noble.

While photography is prohibited in Berlin’s brick and mortar clubs in an effort to maintain immersion and protect clubbers’ freedom and privacy, many in the rave scene were open to Dodd-Noble’s lens. Always asking consent, she began to capture the distinctive personalities of these underground revellers, and her photo series 72 Hours was born. A tribute to the length of these parties, which would move in a blur from carefully sound-proofed apartments to WWII bunkers on the outskirts of the city, her 35 mm portraits crystallise moments of vibrancy and expression in an otherwise bleak period. 

Of course, many in Berlin’s party scene abided by lockdown measures and remained indoors, and Dodd-Noble is candid about the ethical dilemmas of documenting and partaking in the hedonism. “There was definitely a moral compass that was figuring out which way it was pointing,” she admits. “I knew I was doing something wrong in terms of breaking the rules, but I had also spent months and months doing things right. I guess it was also about this need to be around people.”

© Emily Dodd Noble.

Dodd-Noble took solace in the moments of intimacy she shared with her subjects before the shutter closed. “My camera became a beautiful connecting point between myself and these charismatic strangers,” she says. “They allowed me to capture the energy and sense of self that they felt at that very moment in time, and we bonded in those brief periods of calm.” She describes her photographs as “precious items” that depict the minutes in which she met some of her closest friends. 

As winter crept into spring, the crimson glow of DIY dancefloor lights was replaced by the golden rays of dawn in parks and lakesides, and Dodd-Noble’s techniques changed with the seasons. “I started off shooting in these dark basements, directing people towards the light,” she says, reflecting fondly on her early images, full of high-contrast artificial lighting. “Then I had to find the darkness and shadow in the daylight. It was fun having these spaces evolve because it meant that my skills and my eye evolved with them.”

When clubs reopened in June 2021, Dodd-Noble’s project came to a close. While it remains her baby, she’s glad to be moving on. “It came from a dark time. The rhythms of life were unhealthy, mentally and physically. It was an incredible thing to create, but I’m glad it’s not the project I’m living in any more,” she reflects.

She’s taking her learnings from lensing the pace and passion  of underground parties and applying them to Berlin’s Ballroom scene and events run by queer collectives. “I’m attracted to queer spaces because people have worked hard to find the confidence to be their authentic selves, to go against social norms and binary constructs and find their own power. I want to photograph these individuals in order to accentuate their power. That’s what my photography is about.”

72 Hours by Emily Dodd-Noble is showing at Leer Studio, Uhlandstraße 125, 10717 Berlin, Saturday 10 – Sunday 11 September 2022.