Photographing a surreal road trip with Petra Collins

Moni Haworth's new photobook, 'Lunar Library', sees Petra adopt a number of personas. Here, she discusses its creation and her "lo-fi and janky vision".

by Moni Haworth
06 October 2021, 7:00am

It's weird to be welcomed into another person's memories, to see the surface of a life as it was offered up to the camera while remaining blind to its depths. But Moni Haworth has always invited this voyeuristic edge. In her cult blog, Johnny's Bird, she followed the free bodies and freer spirits of Los Angeles's underground punk scene through pulsating clubs, musty motel rooms and dust-strewn highways as they seek to escape the "prescribed positivity" of our time.

A years-long labour of love, Moni's new photobook, Lunar Library, renounces the adult world. It revolves around a series of make-believe games: she behind the lens and dear friend Petra Collins before it. "My vision is always lo-fi and janky, and Petra is really great at improv," Moni says. "We made these images purely for our own entertainment and the fun of driving out to middle-of-nowhere places for adventures. Our heartfelt bond is forged from a similar childlike imagination that hopefully never dies. May our brains never grow up!"

Exclusively for i-D, Moni opens up about the stories behind playtime with Petra and how their collaborative project came to be.

a woman wearing clown makeup holds a small dog in a supermarket

Petra and I met online around 2008 when I was living in London and she in Toronto. We would send each other photos all the time and plan stuff to shoot together, but it wasn't until we both moved to the US in 2012 that we finally met in real life. By this time, she was shooting big commercial jobs and would get me to assist her. We spent a lot of time in cars and hotel rooms together, kind of exploring and comparing our fantasy America with IRL America from our outsider perspectives.

We both love reality shows, sci-fi, technology, evolution, horror films, alien stuff, existential crises, the psychological horrors of childhood, family dynamics, things going wrong etc., and it felt natural to us to just shoot them all, LOL. I think make-believe games are, for us, a good way of reconciling scary or strange stuff with humour. And I like making a drama out of nothing. Less is way more for me… when ordinary situations become completely extraordinary and strange things occur.

a woman in clown makeup squats and drinks from a straw in front of two portable toilets

Baby Da Clown came to life when our friend Kali (a make-up artist) wanted to do a classic clown face. Baby is a pure and sweet soul, and Stu (Kali's aged chihuahua) is her ride or die. She tells him everything and constantly asks him the meaning of everything. She's scared of swimming and probably only eats plain pasta or mashed potato, but always wears her heart on her sleeve. Lexus RV III of Pahrump is a screamy, hypochondriac teen on house arrest who lives with her dancer sister in a trailer in Pahrump, Nevada.

The alien girl came from a shoot Petra did for Vogue Ukraine. In our heads, she had been abducted by aliens when she was younger and is forever watching and waiting for them to come back and take her again. And then there's the big ears girl, who is my daughter, Amber. Our story for that character was kind of a Grimms' Fairy Tales 2020… A farmer found an egg in his cow barn, and it hatched into a tiny girl with huge ears. The farmer and his wife hid her so she wouldn't be bullied and tainted by the outside world.

a woman in a bathing suit stands on an empty road, smoke billows in the background

Petra has super comic timing, fantastic facial expressions and is incredibly unselfconscious in front of the camera (which I guess is rare for photographers). When we shot Baby Da Clown at Castaic Lake, I wanted her to talk to Stu the chihuahua like he was her best friend and ask him meaning-of-life type questions. She was so good and made me laugh so much I couldn't even use the clips (I ruined them by trying to hold in my laughter). She also starts a lot of sentences (IRL) and never finishes them, which infuriates me, but it's funny that she also does that when improvising.

On the last page of the book (which I just received today), she wrote me the best letter I've ever read. I love that she says we're like children playing, and the world is ours. I think we will continue to make our (imaginary) world effortlessly and endlessly, a space-place where we can exist forever together, creating fictional monsters and other dimensions.

a woman wearing heels sits on an armchair in a dated hotel room

There is this sense of prescribed positivity that I definitely resist. Having spent most of my life in the UK, where friendships seem more to begin and evolve through affectionate piss-taking and a sense of not taking ourselves or our individual quirks so seriously, I struggle with the implications of making work that is forever pretty and happy and nice. There's a blandness and a safeness in this weird idealism that is more frightening to me than the darkness of its underbelly. My earlier work with Johnny's Bird was more an observation that reflected the beauty and quirks of imperfect living as I found it in everyday reality.

These images with Petra are about characters and worlds that are monstrous but also loveable and funny and obviously not real. The obvious unreality of these characters gives endless potential for exploration. Yes, you could pitch for Baby Da Clown, representing a girl with mental health issues left unattended in the grocery store with an aged chihuahua as her guardian. But you could also compare it with a kind of old European fairy tale formula: the assumed foolish outsider holding the secrets of the universe. Or you could just think it's cute and funny. Individual perception is all there is, as quantum physics is proving.

Petra and I are shooting something together very soon. Two girls and a baby alien discovery in the desert! It would be cool to make a mini mockumentary someday. We talk about it a lot!

an old fashioned tv resting on a stool in front of a white wall and red carpet
a woman in clown makeup takes a selfie in a dirty mirror
a woman in clown makeup and a bikini holding a dog in old vhs style
a woman in a skirt and crop top stands in front of an abandoned shopping centre forecourt
a woman in a silver swimsuit stands and smiles as smoke billows in the background

'Lunar Library', by Moni Haworth, is published by Super Labo.


All images courtesy the artist and Super Labo

Petra Collins