Why are dystopias so compelling? First popularized in literature (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) and cinema (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), this genre is now proliferating on our screens, thanks to series such as Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale, the latter being adapted from a 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood. And the success of dystopian sagas aimed at teenagers, such as The Hunger Games, proves that this fascination takes hold at a young age.
Dystopias depict societies which, faced with a shortage of resources, have veered into totalitarianism, enforced systemic surveillance and mass manipulation, and gave free rein to technology at the expense of the environment… All of this has familiar echoes in our history, including contemporary. Dystopian stories highlight the potential drift of the present world, and challenge our capacity to accept it, to be outraged, or to revolt.
Sometimes a dystopia takes on the form of a nuanced warning rather than outright denunciation. According to the young Slovak photographer Evelyn Bencicova, the utopia of one social group may be another’s dystopia. Carrying out her project “Asymptote”, which highlights the communist utopia in the USSR through its architecture, she spoke to witnesses representing divergent and sometimes equivocal points of view. “Some people interviewed in the research process described this time positively, while others expressed mostly negative memories, or even both creating a wide scale of opinions and experiences in contrast to good/bad or black and white. For that reason we […] interpret the attitudes and stories shared with us in the undefined area between utopia and dystopia.”
Whether they revive elements of the past or develop current trends, adopt radical or subtle aesthetics, the universes created by the four featured photographers, precisely because they are photographic, rather than written or spoken, leave the viewer free to appropriate their dystopian narratives.
Fernando Montiel Klint: Lunar dystopia
Parched lands bathed in pastel light, rather than making the atmosphere more buoyant, remind us that the end might be near (or has already come). Resources are scarce, and minimalist nutrition consists of pills you eat with chopsticks. The remaining, sparse vegetation is frozen still, artificially tinted like an old photo, because it represents a remnant of the past. Apathetic humanity is more mineral than organic. What the Mexican photographer Fernando Montiel Klint recounts in his series “Distopía” is the artificialization of a world so focused on advanced technologies that it has forgotten to protect its biodiversity.
“I drew a lot of inspiration from posthumanism and transhumanism, as well as from my three-year-long journey across Latin America, through Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, and Ecuador. This road trip stimulated my mind and my senses in the creation of this series,” explained the photographer. In his images we recognize the lunar landscapes of stretches of southern Pacific coasts.
Citing Moebius, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, and Alejandro Jodorowsky among his references, Klint uses the photographic medium to generate a dystopian reality. “I’ve always been interested in manipulating what I see, in creating an artificial reality. The recurring element in my work has been for many years the emotional condition of the individual in a contemporary context; and in Distopía, I have elaborated the context of a possible near future.”
Evelyn Bencicova: Totalitarian dystopia
Whether photographing for Vogue fashion accessories flanked by snakes and raw meat, or creating immersive worlds, the young Slovak photographer and art director Evelyn Bencicova proceeds from an aesthetic of sterility. This uncanny something reaches its climax in the series “Asymptote”, shot in buildings of the former USSR. In the artist’s words, these “places, former symbols of power and greatness, [were] elevated in order to make the person feel small. Today, they stand still, stripped of essential purpose, abandoned or forgotten like gravestones to their former glory.”
Bencicova’s project, which also includes a video by Adam Csoka Keller and a soundtrack by Arielle Esther, is based on various testimonies and archives from the communist era. A disused swimming pool or a conference room are occupied in a punctilious, geometric way by strangely homogenous youngsters who dissolve into a more globalized pattern. As the photographer explains, “each one is stripped of their own individuality to become a unified form, creating a society where every difference is an anomaly in the system.”
While “Asymptote” denounces the excesses of the past, it also aims to shed light on the present state of post-Soviet societies and their values. For all its minimalism, it “deals with several topics, such as paranoia, surveillance, uniformity, normalization or censorship, all being part of this cultural legacy and having lasting effect on actual situations, thinking and behavior.”
Clemens Ascher: Billboard dystopia
“Preconceiv[ing] and depict[ing] the future is a great way to think about the present. Drastic future scenarios imply what present societal and political tendencies might lead to,” notes the Austrian photographer Clemens Ascher. His ironic, photorealist collages depict superficial societies that uncannily resemble advertisements.
Ascher’s series “In the Garden” is set in a fictional gated community whose inhabitants revel in brightly colored outdoor spaces, made mostly of synthetic materials. They prefer to pose in this sort of eerie, minimalist ideal of vacuous luxury rather than relax. To borrow the photographer’s term, this is a “plastic utopia.”
Influenced by dystopian stories, such as Fahrenheit 451, in his imagined scenarios Clemens Ascher likes to “try to provoke contemplation on aspects of societal control and mass manipulation.”
Reginald Van de Velde: Architectural dystopia
“My dad gave me an old analog Pentax camera when I was a kid, and I used to experiment a lot with black & white film, long exposures, … I’ve been documenting abandoned places since my childhood, the eighties.” Recognized for his photographs of ruins and wastelands around the world, Reginald Van de Velde captures the bygone splendor and beauty of forgotten structures.
His series “Landscape Within”, depicting old cooling towers, as well as a number of his other photographs, create the impression of a future dominated by ruins. Documenting industrial relics can be a real adventure, as Van de Velde’s photo story on Buzludzha, formerly home to the Bulgarian Communist Party. “The snow and the wind turned this place into a white hell […]. There are two flights of staircases, and both of them were transformed into frozen waterfalls […]. What followed was a dangerous climb upwards, laying flat on our belly, and pulling us up by using debris and rocks sticking out of the ice.”
Even if, strictly speaking, Reginald Van de Velde does not create a dystopian universe, he readily admits his work on ruins is influenced by films in the genre: “I simply adore dystopian sci-fi movies […]. The end scene of the 1967 movie Planet of the Apes, where a collapsed Statue of Liberty sits half sunken on the seashore. The protagonist arrives at the scene and falls knee deep in the surf, cursing and crying upon realising humanity has failed […]. That setting for me is the apotheosis of what we do as ruin explorers.”
By Charlotte Jean
Charlotte Jean is a journalist and author. A former contributor to Beaux Arts Magazine and the founder of Darwin Nutrition, she graduated from the École du Louvre, where she majored in in contemporary art.