for Monster Children
For most Australians - but especially for creatives - receiving a letter form Tim Winton would be the stuff of dreams. The salt-encrusted author, conservationist, surfer and general go-to-for-answers-to-ethical-questions guy somehow seemed to narrate most Aussie millennials’ childhoods. So when Sydney-based photographer Ingvar Kenne received a very polite rejection letter from Tim Winton when requesting an intro to his latest book, The Ball, it was enough to know he was onto something.
Going ahead and publishing the rejection letter in place of an essay, Kenne’s book has since been met by wide and loud applause from the photographic community. Exploring the culture of B&S balls in Australia’s interior, the book is a chaotic and and anarchic glimpse into what were once white-glove-wearing affairs aimed at facilitating relationships for isolated farmers.
Coming off the back of a body of work about karaoke culture in Asia and his series, The Hedgehog and the Foxes - an insight into the life of porn star Ron Jeremy - The Ball adds to Kenne’s list of photographic subjects on the social periphery. Over his career thus far, Kenne has photographed - in his words - everyone from “a prime minister, a prostitute, famous actors, my wife, a priest and a nun, tribal dancers and a now dead friend” in “one long random thread of encounters”. With little more research conducted than a quick skim of a wikipedia article, Kenne was driving off into the desert at 4am to his first B&S Ball, a continuation of his democratic approach to subject matter and a sweet foray into well composed anarchy.
- How did you become aware of B&S Balls and what took your interest in them?
I had done a few projects in the past – Karaoke and one called The Hedgehog and The Foxes, both being settings with people congregating in dense numbers, bottle in hand. A friend suggested I continue with an all-out drunk Australia book, and suggested B&S balls. This was a bit over three years ago, and it was the first I had heard of them, in spite of having lived here for two decades. With the Balls, it became immediately clear that these country throngs were to me completely alien. I have no real interest in alcohol, or cultural events based on it, though I seem to end up in that space frequently. The anarchy in movement and intensity of repeated and heightened human emotions is spellbinding and keep asking for further scrutiny.
- To me, the images elicit some sort of Martin Parr aesthetic at times but are also often quite ominous. How constructed was your approach to photographing? Where you actively looking to espies certain ideas or it was more simply reactive?
Like with all my personal work, I like to go into a project as uninitiated as I possibly can be, with a clear mind, ridden of any preconceived ideas. I had literally read one wiki media page and seen some images off a google search before I drove away for my first experience at a B&S. I tried to stay neutral (like a good Swede) and see what happens. That experience of walking into a dusty mosh-pit of 1000 intoxicated youth was really frightening. And still is.
The thing is though, the people going to these Balls are really proud of them. This is the Facebook generation. They want to be seen, tag and share their experiences. Being much older and clearly not there to party, I was tested and at the receiving end of much attention. My level of anxiety always turned out to be unwarranted. I was welcomed and included in the fun. And that is what they are there to have. I never experienced and hardly saw any aggression. I think that sense of unbridled merry can be seen in the work. Somewhere within the bedlam the images that resonate with me kept coming. It is an environment that keeps on giving. I found myself gravitate to when the square frame seem to find a moment of suspended harmony, chaos paused, without a singular way of viewing it. Further, I never looked back on the images till I had stopped shooting. I didn't want existing images to get a hold of me and start informing of what I might be lacking. So I guess the answer is that it was only reactive.
- On that note, I love the letter from Tim Winton in the book. Basically, a rejection letter! What did Tim find “heartbreaking” about the series?
I sent Tim Winton an unsolicited box full of pictures. He returned it a month later with a very thoughtful and generous response. Yes he kindly declined to contribute, but the letter remained with me and I asked him if I could publish it in full. I am not to guess on the reasons behind his words. However, I did become aware of that my box of prints seemed to arrive with timing crucial to his own work. he was in the process in preparing a talk about toxic masculinity in Australia, to coincide with the launch of his latest novel The Shepherd’s Hut. Maybe he saw the images of B&S balls as one of many pinnacles of that very issue. As he later said in his lecture - “Toxic masculinity is a burden to men. It is men who need to step up and liberate boys from the race, the game, the fight” and “Children are born wild. And that’s beautiful, it’s wondrous, regardless of gender. Even when they’re feral creatures, kids are reservoirs of tenderness and empathy. But some do turn into savages.”
- Tim seemed to arrived at the question of “what are we left with from these rights of passage?” - Do you have an answer to that for the B&S Balls? The structure and tone of the book also seem to pose that question.
In my initial letter to Tim, I muse around those very ideas. How we seem to have lost what older cultures gifted their youth, as a mean to both break and bond while transiting to man and woman hood, through initiating ceremonies. Though I am saying that having never experienced a rite of passage myself. If anything I see them as a replacement of a traditional initiation ceremony or a right of passage. Australia is clearly not alone in having lost a connection with land and its history. How does this change of way inform our identity, our traditions and in how we belong? Perhaps The Ball is touching on how we communally have lost our way, disconnected from the past and with that a sense that tomorrow doesn't really matter.
- Similarly, in your letter in the book you state that the series might be talking about “youth taking control of their journey in a need to break with authority in their lives.” Would you mind elaborating on this a little?
I left home at 16 and encourage independence and finding your own way through this world. No-one can do it for you. We all have to grow up someday, somehow. How we do that is reflected in what times we live in.
I see great value in strong family and community ties, where knowledge and a moral codes are passed down and over to the next generation. We still want to belong, so if those ties are weakened and partly replaced by a reliance on what everyone else is doing ( plus the www ) the way these Balls present themselves might be a reflection of that.
- Are B&S Balls Australia’s answer to Burning Man, Midsummer or frat culture?
Where lies this apparent need to completely go apeshit, drink yourself into stupor, en masse? Living in isolation on farms, some as big as Irish counties, toiling the tractor for weeks on end might explain some of the need for human interaction and only having 24 hour at hand lends itself to intensifying the experience. But yes, particularly all over the western Anglo world, you have very similar gatherings as you point out.
Different exposition, similar trip?
What does editing process typically look like for a book and did it waver much for this project? Did you have collaborators on the edit?
To me it is all about the singular image, it has to work in isolation and over time. If I keep coming back to it and have a continuous dialogue in my head, it will be considered in the final edit. Clearly I had a lot of images to sift through and I tried to be really quick and reactive about which images that got put aside for further scrutiny. With 200-300 images in the pile, certain pattern started to emerge. Some good and some satisfactory on the veneer only. I found that if the image existed because the camera elevated the anarchy to fever pitch - the spectacle a direct reaction to my presence, then it was omitted.
Gosta Flemming, the publisher, was a big part of the discussion of inclusion, omission, cover art and overall design all the way through the process. Plus a few friends who’s opinion I value. Through these conversations, I find myself clarifying what photographs matter. The narrative only becomes clear at that late stage, which I find both essential and joyful. The story discovers itself, rather than me setting out with a premeditated tale to tell. In 2017 I did a photo book making course with Corinne Noordenbos in Croatia, putting The Ball on the table. It was an amazing experience and opened up endless possibilities what a photo book can be and how the material at hand should inform the choices every step of the way. We continued to speak via Skype sending edits back and forth for 5-6 months last year. She has this amazing ability to not ever commenting on your images, instead constantly asking crucial questions, that you have to answer and justify for yourself, more than anything. In the end we settled on the flow of images being as unexpected as the content. The layout is quite rigid, but we never wanted the viewer to be able to anticipate what the next spread should be or getting settled into a routine. We wanted it to remain a surprise and aid the twists and turns of what you are witnessing.