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Sure shot – Could you survive a zombie apocalypse?

Joe Pettet-Smith's entry to the BJP Breakthrough Awards 2017. This single image, Zombie Apocalypse Survival Experience, is part of a wider project which explores end of the world scenarios. © Joe Pettet-Smith

Would you be prepared for a zombie apocalypse? Joe Pettet-Smith creates sublime sci-fi futures in his work-in-progress, Preparations for The Worst Case Scenario

“I think it is a popular fantasy to indulge in, to imagine yourself at the end of civilization,” says Joe Pettet-Smith. “In Adam Curtis’ recent film HyperNormalisation he suggests that events at the end of the 20th century led to a notable shift in our vision of the future – there were no longer optimistic ideals of industrial progress, but ones of pessimism. I think the recent apparent increase in popularity of post-apocalyptic narratives is an extension of this.”

Still a student studying at the University of Brighton, Pettet-Smith has shot one of the more quirky manifestations of this fantasy – zombie apocalypse events, in which participants pay to have close encounters with ‘zombies’ in disused factories, shopping centres, and woodlands. The events tend to sell out well in advance but Pettet-Smith has chosen to focus on the venues themselves rather than the action, in a work-in-progress he’s calling Preparations for The Worst Case Scenario. 

He’s shot in three venues so far, but was a runner up in BJP‘s Breakthrough Awards with a single shot, undergraduate category, showing a defunct shopping mall in Reading. “The architecture tells the viewer this is a shopping mall but the details suggest all is not what it seems,” he says of the photograph.

“The floor is covered with the plastic ammunition from the session that ended before I went in, one of the obstacles in the darkened corridor has a print out of a zombie figure used as target practice. The pillar has a splash of red paint to suggest blood.”

Pettet-Smith was inspired to start shooting Preparations for The Worst Case Scenario last year, after a series of disastrous cultural and political shifts that led to the Doomsday Clock being shifted to 2 minutes 30 seconds to midnight, “the closest it has been since 1953 when tensions between the United States and Russia were on the brink of nuclear war”.

Coming across the zombie events, he requested access to the defunct mall; his request was rejected three times between January and March, and – because the site is also used for police and military training – he was given only a very limited slot in April. With only 30 minutes to hand, he watched every YouTube video he could find of the interior and mapped out his plan in advance.

“I knew I wanted large format camera movements to correct the perspective in camera so the camera I used was an Ebony 45S non-foldable field camera,” he says. “This gave me a generous amount of front-rise to play with and as it’s non-foldable it takes seconds to set up. I had to trust my instincts as a photographer and to be confident in my own ability to get the shot in a such a short amount of time.”

With over 20,000 square foot to cover he found himself picking up his camera and running from location to location, trying not to stumble on the ammunition fired in previous zombie battles. “Every five minutes or so, the events manager would remind me of how much time I had left,” he laughs. “It felt like supermarket sweep, only in a shopping mall and the objective was to get pictures not groceries.”

Given this pressure he’s keen to find more venues to continue to the project, and says it’s a phenomenon that still intrigues him. “Going out of your way to experience what it might be like to outlast civilisation itself, to be one of the lone survivors after some catastrophic world event exercises a very intriguing part of psychology,” he says. “Through this work I was attempting to probe at something beneath the surface.”

www.joepettetsmith.com