Ahead of a new book release in collaboration with Ditto tonight, photographer Vinca Petersen shares unseen stills and stories from her life traversing the 90s club-rave cosmos
For this article, Ben Freeman and Vinca Petersen offered us extra collages made exclusively for Dazed, in collaboration with stylist Ellie Grace Cumming.
Vinca Petersen and Ben Freeman can’t quite agree on when they first met. Officially, it was in 2015, when the photographer came knocking on the door of Freeman’s Ditto publishing house to see if they would re-release her seminal photobook No System. Unofficially, things are a little blurrier: there’s every chance they crossed paths in the 90s, in the lawless, smoke-filled days of the rave era. “You said we probably did (meet before), but you were just the weird kid in the corner,” quips Petersen. “You didn’t have dreadlocks, did you?” For Freeman, squatting in south London, Petersen was one of the few “on it” figures circling in those years; a wholly relative position, Petersen replies, given she was “raving continuously and living in a squat”.
The world of Vinca Petersen is one of transient fantasies, truly lived. It’s not that she directs her camera to hidden places, but rather, to societal hinterlands – the illegal raves, temporary homes and open fields where her subjects seek small moments of transcendence from everyday realities. Her route to becoming a photographer is inextricable from the politically minded social movements of the day, beginning with the 90s squatter movement and then the modern-day nomadic movement of the 2000s. While No System paid tribute to the free party scene, much of Petersen’s vast and chaotic archive remains unpublished. For Freeman, that chaos felt true to his own experiences, presenting an opportunity for a publication that would capture the dualities of Petersen’s life at that time: dropping out to live in squats and on the road, while simultaneously working as a successful model. The forthcoming title Future Fantasy will tell the story of those contrasts via various ephemera, love letters and portraits from that time, including some by Petersen’s friend Corinne Day – as well as speak to the unique bravery it must have taken for a 19-year-old girl to set out on her own in a rave new world. Back in the real world, the collaborators got together to talk about a time when, as Freeman puts it, “being in-the-moment had a moment”.
Ben Freeman: At the time, this squat-rave scene was pretty full-on. No photographers, no camera phones.
Vinca Petersen: There were no phones! There was the party line in London. 0181…
BF: …959 7525.
VP: Well remembered!
BF: It’s important to note that literally nobody was documenting this stuff.
VP: They tried, but they would have their films ripped out of their cameras.
BF: And get a kicking.
VP: If you had a camera the reaction was very negative, so you’d feel uncomfortable.
BF: I think the photos that people did take would generally be portraits of their friends in group shoots. Whereas your photography had a documentary quality to it, which is interesting because it’s not the way most people used a camera. In fact, it still isn’t.
VP: I was interested in the life around things, if that’s what you mean. What’s weird is that I can tell very quickly what sort of photographer has taken photos by the way they either photograph them from the side, from behind, when they’re asleep, in a clandestine kind of way… There’s a specific type of photographer that wants to pass among people unseen and document them without any engagement. And then there are people who engage too much with their subject. They are imposing themselves on the scene, they’re in the photograph with the people in a sense. What I like to do is remember the moment that is actually happening, rather than the one created or changed in any way by getting the camera out. I don’t want to be just voyeuristic, though. It’s about not interrupting the moment but still being present in it.
BF: A lot of what was happening (in the scene) was outside the law and many people involved didn’t want others to know where they were, for example.
VP: There wasn’t CCTV in the same way. We used to print out our own insurance papers, change paperwork… You could change the number plate on your car by adding some tape. People used to be paranoid – ‘Don’t get my registration plate on that photo, mate’ – because that documented where they were at the time. Whereas now you just take it for granted that everyone knows where you are. Your phone tells everyone where you are.
BF: There was endless diesel-stealing. Red diesel.
VP: That was one of my techno romances!
VP: Do you remember the cartoon Love Is…? I used to have techno versions. One of them was ‘Love is stealing diesel together’ or ‘Love is holding him up when he has a wee.’ Quite a few of them.
BF: What really interested me was seeing you in front of the camera. You were 19, working as a model, going to Japan and getting paid. And then you also went on to live in a truck, which was not completely unheard of, but unusual at that time. The only people I knew who were doing that were some weird crusty didgeridoo players…
VP: I can almost hear ‘Jerusalem’ playing in the background. With a really heavy sub-bass coming through underneath.
BF: What does this book, Future Fantasy, mean to you?
VP: I’m doing it because I feel like the archive should be more public than it is. I don’t see it as something that fully belongs to me. I see it as an exciting thing that involves my story but loads of other people’s stories, too. Every element of it – like the fashion – is fascinating to me. I love sharing it with young people! And old people. And dogs and cats. BF: Young people especially?
VP: It happened the other day on a shoot we were doing. These young kids turned up. No one knew who I was or what was going on. I showed them my book No System. Some of them were a little bit interested, others were more interested in what they were gonna wear. And this one boy looked all dreamy and vacant for a minute, and I knew. He turned around, looked at me and said, ‘That’s really great, I’d like to do something like that.’ Very simple words, but it was more the look on his face. I knew I had touched something. And that’s really important to me, because someone or something did that to me. It sparked a life that wasn’t 100 per cent great, but I don’t regret a single moment. Well, maybe a couple…