see photos of sydney's rave scene in the 90s
Photographer Simon Burstall's book '93: Punching the Light' offers an intimate look at being a young raver in Australia.
Images courtesy of Simon Burstall
Simon Burstall was only 16 when he started photographing Sydney, Australia’s burgeoning rave scene. Armed with his camera, he and his friends would pile into his mom’s car at 3 AM every Saturday night to make the 40-minute drive to the industrial part of the city. It was the early 90s, and young people were gathering to dance at DIY parties in abandoned warehouses, their bodies lit by lasers as the electrobeats pumped in the background until the sun came up. When the music was over, they would spill into the car parks, where Simon would capture the scene on film — kids in baggy denim, shrunken thrift store sweaters, and FILA sneakers coming down from the highs of the night.
“I remember as clear as yesterday that shooting these pictures was something amazing. I didn’t know what focus, depth of field, f-stop, or shutter speed was... I just felt I needed to photograph it,” said Simon to i-D, over the phone from his home in upstate New York.
Now, nearly 30 years later, the 44-year-old has compiled his photos, personal diary entries, and old fliers for ‘93: Punching the Light, a book that offers an intimate look at a year in his life as a young raver in the short-lived underground scene.
To find out more about those long nights and how his book captures the ecstasy of being a teen, we called up Simon ahead of the worldwide book launch.
How did you get into photography?
I left my old school in the area I grew up in. I had a bit of an attitude problem. I wasn’t a bad kid or anything. I just wasn’t challenged. So my mom and dad were like, “We got money aside for you if you want to look at other options.” It was hard to make friends because I was a weekly boarder. So I decided to do art. My art teacher asked me, “Can you paint?” I said, “No.” “Can you draw?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, what do you do?" I said, “I take pictures of my mates.” He said, “Great, here is some film. Go take pictures.”
So then you started photographing the raves?
Raves were the subculture, or the subject matter that I wanted to photograph. I really loved them and they were so much fun. Everyone looked so cool because it was quite a process. We’d all go out and buy the biggest and baddest pairs of denim flares and these silly little polyester shirts that stank and were horrible and the old man cardigans with the pockets. It was all a scene with the hats and baggy jeans and FILA shoes.
What was it like being a young raver in Sydney at that time?
It was just a whole thing that went under the radar. No one knew about it, unless you knew about it. It was such a diverse, little world. It was around for a very small window from 89-94. It really kicked off in 91, which is the year I started. I don’t think it could happen now. It’s a shame, but I just don’t think it is possible.
What was a typical weekend like?
Everyone would come over to my house and get dressed and drive there at 4 AM. The security would have left or at least they were charging $5 instead of $25, which back then to a 17-year-old was a lot of money. We would stay up and dance for hours. Mom and dad knew, but they weren’t thrilled. It was a really special period.
Did you always shoot in the morning?
I didn’t want to feel like I was exposing the situation or abruptly shooting people, where it was like, “a flash just went off in my face, it’s 7 AM.” When I was shooting there was always available light. The camera always came out in the morning. The morning was so special because you just went through the ups and downs of the party, but mainly the ups.
What did you like about the car parks?
The car parks were so interesting because it was where people connected again. It was where you hung out and there were multiple stereos playing out the back of the cars. People had parties there, so I wanted to make it more about that, opposed to the hacienda typical rave pictures. I wanted it to be about the community. I really felt like I was an insider rather than an outsider photographing something.
Can you tell me more about the diary entries that are sprinkled throughout the book? Some of them aren't even specifically about the raves, like the one about your new haircut?
It was really a challenge because I had to filter through them. That one about my haircut? What the hell was I thinking? The fact that I wrote that baffles me. I didn’t want to talk all about the drugs, because it wasn’t all about the drugs, it was about connection and people. That’s adolescence. I wanted to make it about the struggles and ecstasy of being 16 and 17.
What inspired you to put the book out now?
There were pictures I stumbled upon on a hard drive, and it was the classic ones during that period that I loved. I just thought I should look at this again because we are knocking on the door of the 90s being cool again. This was three years ago and the fashion wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. You can look at the book and think it’s from now. Visually, I thought this was going to come back in style. And for a decade, this stuff was just sitting in my room at my mom and dad's house on a shelf in a bag.
I didn’t think it would be as challenging. You forget the actual emotional level of going through this stuff. I found it very difficult
What do you want people to take away from the book?
I want someone who is young and learning about life to look at it and say I completely relate to this.
A worldwide book launch and book signing with Simon will be hosted at 98 Orchard Street in New York on Oct. 17 from 6-10 PM, followed by an after-party from 10 PM-4 AM at Good Room in Greenpoint.