Peter Dench Spent a Summer Touring Europe to Photograph Shitfaced Brits Abroad
We spoke to the photographer about what he learned while taking pictures of British people being drunk and disgusting.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
The great European piss-up holiday. Often the first time teenagers have been unsupervised for longer than their parents' "let's fix our marriage" weekend mini-breaks, they're finally able to drink until they need serious medical attention, get shitty tattoos, or do something mildly depraved that provokes all kinds of haughty opinion pieces over here and actual anti-depravity legislation enforced by police over there.
Photographer Peter Dench has been documenting the British for well over a decade, producing a trilogy of books about the core tenets of Britishness. There's Alcohol and England, England Uncensored, and his latest, The British Abroad. For the Brits abroad book, he spent a summer touring four of Europe's most popular party destinations—Ayia Napa, Sunny Beach in Bulgaria, Ibiza, and Magaluf—to capture what some of us get up to after an EasyJet flight and six liters of paint thinner vodka.
I recently sat down with Peter for a chat about what he learned while taking photos of British people being drunk and disgusting.
VICE: Hi Peter. Over the months you spent shooting The British Abroad, what did you learn about the British?
Peter Dench: This is my third book on Britishness, and what I learned from the last one—which was Alcohol and England, shot between 1998 and 2008—was that, already, pictures from around 2001 are telling us about a significant piece of history: that the English were drinking younger, for cheaper, and more excessively than ever before. I think I realized that at the time, but that instinct has since been validated. I'm hoping The British Abroad will develop in a similar way—that we'll look back at this period of time as one where travel was cheap.
Do you think that's on the way out now?
I can't predict anything, but remember when you could get £1 flights? They've pretty much disappeared.
There's also a bit of a backlash against those kinds of holidays now, like the recent anti-street drinking legislation in Magaluf.
Yeah, it's an uneasy balance, because the businesses want the trade, but then have to put up with the behaviour of the Brits abroad. I think they need to be a bit more radical in their solution, though—stopping people from drinking on the street seems to be a half-hearted way of trying to make a gesture towards cleaning up.
Where was the first place you went to shoot for this project?
It started off as New Yorker piece, and they sent me to Porec in Croatia, then Ayia Napa; Sunny Beach, Bulgaria; Ibiza; and I wanted to end in Magaluf, because that's where I went on holiday as a kid.
Where was the rowdiest?
The most difficult place to shoot was San Antonio, Ibiza, because more people there mix drink and drugs. I know how drunk people behave and I know how people on drugs behave, but I can never predict how people who mix both are going to behave. I met a group of nine lads from Coventry there who'd taken something and had got through about nine liters of vodka–I couldn't tell if they wanted to grab my camera, give me a hug, or pull a blade.
They seemed a lot more naive in Sunny Beach.
Are there as many Brits there, or is it more of a mix?
A bit more of a mix, and I think that helped. There's a sort of perceived Eastern European menace among some British tourists there, and that helped to calm them down. I haven't included any of this or said where any of the specific photos were taken in the book because the point for me is that they could be anywhere; we deposit our way of partying on the place, rather than being attracted by its unique characteristics.
Do you think the reputation Brits have abroad is justified? Did you see a lot of mankinis and fighting and pissing in the street?
Yeah, I spent a couple of nights patrolling Magaluf beach with George, the beach security guy, and he said the British give him the most difficulty.
Were there any photos that didn't make the cut because they portrayed something you didn't feel comfortable publishing?
Yeah. I think there's a way of doing photojournalism—it's not going to change the world, but I can pose questions and, at best, effect change. And I don't think the best way of doing that is showing people with their cocks out.
As you said, this is the third part of your photographic study of England—what have you seen change over the years?
I think there's more openness about economic situations. People talk about poverty more openly because they're not ashamed of their situation. I don't necessarily think there's a north-south divide any more. I also think British people are quite often misunderstood; I've only ever been punched in the face once. I think there's a lot of tolerance.
How did you see that play out in somewhere like Magaluf?
I was quite surprised—I thought everyone would be videoing for Facebook, trying to shame their mates, but there generally wasn't much of that; there was a protectiveness to each group. I'm not saying it was all pats on the back and handshakes, but it wasn't as punchy as I thought.
How much of that did you see?
Again, it's just where drugs and alcohol mix. If you drop a bottle of vodka on a wrap of cocaine, that's where it gets really messy and unpredictable. I grew up during the football violence, and that was far more intimidating, exhilarating, and heart-pumping than flash moments in a club.
Have you ever thought about documenting any of that? I suppose it's not really worth it these days.
It's pathetic. There was a documentary recently about "the new mob," and they turned out to be two boys from Bury versus two boys from Blackburn, and two of them failed to turn up in a Tesco car park.
We all want to hold on to a part of our youth, but I'm 43 now—I don't blend in as well as I used to.
Did realizing that on the first Brits Abroad location make you more self-conscious when you went to all the other places?
Well, I did it all in one chunk, apart from Porec, which was before. I did the four destinations back-to-back—I'd come back home for a day and then go straight back out.
Yeah, well, it's not trench warfare, is it? It's not chuffing away at the coalface. But I'd had enough by the end of it. I think I was just lying on my bed in Magaluf, smelling of chip fat, listening to Swedish House Mafia for the 122nd time.
Did you mix much with the reps?
Yes, a lot. That's a different story, what they do and how they behave.
Into dance music? Then you'll like Thump, our entire website dedicated to dance music.
They seem far more extreme than the tourists.
Yeah. I saw reps collapse, grossly misbehave and take advantage of situations. To put the safety of others in the hands of some of the reps is worrying. And I saw more mouth ulcers among the reps than I did the tourists.
Did you come across many people having terrible holidays that just hadn't worked out for them? There's a lot of expectation with those kind of destinations.
There does seem a sadness to the whole experience. When I went to Ayia Napa, there were some boys in Heathrow necking bubbles, and they ordered champagne on the plane. I saw them at a pool party doing the same thing—they refused to let their idea of what the holiday was going be be anything else. I did see that sadness—a realization that you've saved up all year for two weeks in the sun, and now it's not delivering.
What's the general age range in these places? Did you notice a lot of kids on their first proper holiday with their mates?
Yeah, there's a lot of that. Ibiza is a bit older, but just because of how expensive it is. I went to Magaluf when I was 17, which was far too young. We were lads from Weymouth, a small working-class seaside resort. We were swaggering about there, but when we got to Magaluf and saw all the top boys swaggering about, we suddenly realized how down the pecking order we were.
Last up: now the trilogy's finished, you're getting away from Britain for a bit, right?
Yeah, I'm off to Dallas for two weeks. Got a day at a gun range, a day at a baseball match, I'm going to a religious festival... it's time to explore somewhere new. That's the plan. We'll see how it goes.
See more photos from The British Abroad below: