Interview by Matthew Broadhead –
I met Joe Pettet-Smith whilst we were both undergraduates studying photography in Brighton, and we’ve kept in touch since I graduated in 2016. He always struck me as motivated and ambitious, with an intellectual underpinning to his work, so his rapid progress in the industry came as no surprise.
A photograph from his graduate body of work Preparations for the Worst Case Scenario was selected as runner up in the single image category at the British Journal of Photography’s Breakthrough Awards. More recently he has won print commissions from Financial Times Weekend and Saturday Telegraph Magazine.
Matthew Broadhead: First of all, let’s discuss your project Preparations for the Worst Case Scenario, could you just describe the body of work for those who might not have seen it yet?
Joe Pettet-Smith: Sure thing. It’s a research led photographic project that puts forward a visual strategy for trying to understand post-apocalyptic themes within mainstream entertainment. The foundation of the project is rooted in the study of existential risk, which is a loose term for research models that test civilizational collapse. The project uses examples from a range of simulacra from the world of entertainment to unpick a complex part of psychology. Ultimately it is an attempt to understand why these narratives exist and why they are so popular.
The core of the project is my suggestion that these case studies are different inflections of the same thing; a kind of psychological preconditioning for the world as we know it ending, hence the title, Preparations for the Worst Case Scenario. For instance, playing a game like the immensely popular Fallout 4 (2015), where you build the character in your own image and to progress through the game you have to make moral decisions. Could it be said that the player is literally playing out what they might do if they found themselves in a post apocalyptic world of raiders and radiation? Perhaps that theorem can be transferred to the world of cinema and literature, albeit to varying degrees.
MB: You were selected for the single image category of the BJP Breakthrough Awards. As a result you were interviewed about the winning photograph, Zombie Apocalypse Survival Experience, Reading 2017. Your case study approach allows each photograph to stand-alone and have an impact. What can you say about this?
JPS: I was thinking about the project as being a literal interpretation of what a photo essay could be. I was imagining this long thesis that uses these case studies to explore the topic and to build an argument. Only, the essay does not actually exist. The pictures I am taking are the illustrations to an imaginary thesis. Calling it a straight photo essay would be limiting as it suggests a photojournalistic approach, which this is far from. I’ve been the describing the work as using a case study approach, as you mentioned, or saying that I’ve been working towards making an index or contemporary archive of different case studies. I think this is more useful than adding ‘meta’ or ‘post’ prefixes to existing terms.
MB: If you met an important figure from the industry and had an opportunity to speak to them briefly, what would your pitch for this project be? The challenge is to use as few words as possible.
JPS: “Hi, I’m Joe Pettet-Smith. Quick question, have you seen any of the Mad Max films? Have you ever seen a trashy disaster flick? Did you enjoy it? Can you think why you might have enjoyed it?…
I’ve started a project about trying to understand why those themes are a thing.”
MB: During your studies at the University of Brighton, you were an intern at the Simon Roberts studio, and you’ve since gone on to become his first assistant. What kind of roles and responsibilities have you had, and what kind of photographer does this position best suit?
JPS: A lot of what I do at the studio is post production and file management but also location support, doing all of the in-house printing, initial project research, managing the internship program and as of this month I’m going to start helping with the instagram. As well as this I guess my role consists of the general running of the studio when Simon is away.
I think you have got to be able to work on several tasks at once, constantly spinning those plates and to have a head for problem solving. Efficiency is important so to be always thinking of ways of making processes less clunky and more efficient. A good sense of humour and staying level headed goes a long way. As does being good at making coffee.
MB: Having been recently commissioned by Financial Times Weekend and Saturday Telegraph Magazine, could you share some insight how the opportunity came about, what they required from you as a practitioner, and what you got from the experience that you didn’t get from any other endeavor to date?
JPS: I guess both of them came about at a similar time. I started making pictures in Dover in the run up to the referendum last year as a little side thing. Some of the pictures were featured by Pylot but I felt like I just let the project sit after that. The day the general election was called in May I was in the studio and all of a sudden there was an added sense of urgency. Simon asked how ready the work was and if I could get him a PDF to send to people. That night I put together a new edit and he introduced me to a few magazines that might be interested in publishing the work. Nobody took it but it did start the conversations. I think all you can hope for is to be on people’s radar. I got a call one rainy tuesday morning months later from Andy Greenacre the picture editor of the Saturday Telegraph saying there was an assignment they’d like me to do in Brighton. We were on the phone and he was picking bits out from my site he liked, namely a commission I’d done already in a similar vein to what they were looking for. The turnaround was manageable, they knew it was all shot on film and that the main portraits were shot on 5×4, at their request.
Emma Bowkett from the Financial Times Weekend was one of the judges for The Breakthrough Awards 2017. In late June when I was finishing up my degree Emma got in touch to say she liked the pictures from In Defence of Lost Causes, a project I started at university. We messaged back and forth and I pitched to complete the project. This was a total dream, heading off shooting my own stuff all on 5×4 but knowing it had a home.
Experience gained was probably managing client expectations, meeting the deadline and at budget.
MB: In Defence of Lost Causes is an older body of work. Before finishing the project, you secured a commission that would allow you to use both your original material and incorporate new material shot to complete the work. Would you explain your reason for this particular process, as opposed to just working on it as a personal project and finding avenues to disseminate it later?
Editorial assignments are one of the potential revenue streams available to photographers like me. I just want to take the pictures that interest me, and it’s a case of looking for ways for funding the making of new work. When I started that work I did it because it was an excuse to teach myself large format camera movements and to get my head around the Scheimpflug principle. I didn’t get a good grade for the work because the marker (shout out to Xavier Ribas) didn’t like the fact I kept to the south coast, that I didn’t shoot all of the structures in the country. His opinion was that it was a conceptual loophole and the project was incomplete. I liked the pictures so I put it on my site. The structures were built as a precursor to radar and were used to detect enemy zeppelins during WWI. 2018 marks a century on from the end of the conflict so this personal art project I had worked on all of a sudden has added public interest.
MB: What has been the biggest turning point in your life during the last three months?
JPS: I think it’s to do with realizing my (photographic) heroes are just normal people, that my work has a place and that I’m not just working in a vacuum (not all of the time at least).
MB: What are your cultural, artistic interests and what are your critical, theoretical interests?
JPS: I think this changes from project to project, you could do this for every project you do but for Preparations for the Worst Case Scenario I think it would be:
Cultural: J.G Ballard
Artistic: Taryn Simon
Critical: Adam Curtis
Theoretical: Martin Rees
MB: Do you have a recent quote that you would like to share?
JPS: “Don’t be afraid to take bad pictures”
It’s not recent by any means but it’s the one I would like to share. It comes from something I heard Martin Parr say a few years back. It’s so simple. I don’t take that many pictures when I’m shooting but I think his words help me to take more security shots to ensure I’ve definitely got the picture. But on a more profound level it’s encouragement to stop caring about whether others will be as in to your work as you are, just make work and worry about the rest later.
MB: Lastly, what are your plans for this year?
JPS: Photographically the plan is to continue to juggle commissions, personal projects and assisting. As long as I’m still shooting and making work that interests me once a week I’ll be happy. Anything more would be a bonus.