Wild Photos From the 90s Loosest Country Horse Race

Beers, horses, and horrible portaloo incidents. Welcome to the 1999 Birdsville races.

|
Oct 7 2018, 11:53pm

All photos by Glenn Hunt

For more stories from the parts of Australia that don't often get heard, check out our new VICE series: Australiana

Glenn Hunt is a Brisbane-based photographer and photojournalist. In 1999, while living in Adelaide, he drove the 1,170 kilometres to the remote Queensland town of Birdsville. Best known for the Birdsville Races, the event sees it swell by thousands of residents for a few days of each year.

Glenn’s work captures this organised chaos: empty tins littering the street, people passed out by the local pub, and the occasional horse or two. Collectively, the photos capture the essence of country Queensland at the turn of the century.

VICE: Hey Glenn, what made you decide to go and document this raucous event?
Glenn: I remember having a conversation with my friend and photojournalist Warren Clarke, who sadly passed away this year. He said “Why don’t we meet up there?”. At the time, I was looking for Australiana stuff, and working on a project exploring horse culture; the connection between man and horse. Being from South Australia, it was one of those events you hear about but don’t know much about. But, like a lot of things I photograph, I just go and check it out. [Warren] drove across from Queensland with his mate “Cock”, and I caught up with him in Birdsville, which is a long fucking drive from Adelaide!

Have you been back since?
I only went once after, to catch up with the photographers, Trent Parke and Narelle Autio. I hated it the second time around. To be honest, I hated it the first time. It’s a dusty, horrible place. I wish I knew what it was like now, but I don’t want to go back [laughs].

What was behind the decision to document the culture around the races, rather than the race itself?
It comes down to the humans. It’s more photojournalistic and humanistic, as opposed to being a sports photographer. The horses are just an excuse for the people to get out there and do their thing.

What was the actual event like? Was it as much of a party as it looks?
Yeah it was. On one of the first nights, I was sitting in my car trying to recover somewhat from hay fever—the place is just absolutely dust-ridden—and I see these lights going backwards and forwards on the hotel roof. I’m just thinking what the hell is going on? So I ran over there. Missed it all—didn't get a single photograph of it. Turns out, it was this guy running naked on the roof with sparklers up his arse. So it was those kinds of shenanigans going on, but that was back then. I don’t know how policed it is now.

That’s unreal. Is that as out of control as it got?
When I got there, Warren and Cock hadn’t arrived yet. This fella, thinking he was smart, taped up the doors of the portaloos so people couldn’t get out. His mates pushed it over on him when he was inside though. The thing was just over on his side for an eternity, then the door flings open, and he jumps up covered in shit; his arms flinging shit into the air. He’s going up to his mates, and they don’t want to know him. About an hour later, I see him standing in the line to have a shower at the only shower block, with a gap of about 10 people on either side of him. It was disgusting.

Who were the people there?
It’s a certain demographic: middle-aged men with four wheel drives; the ones who go on big trips and get on the piss at pubs in the middle of nowhere. They’re the only ones who can afford it. There aren’t many young teenagers there, because they don’t have four wheel drives, and aren’t silly enough to drive those distances.

Was it just chaos? Or were the police there controlling it?
I don’t remember too much police intervention outside the hotel. The cops are there, but they’re on the roads with breathalysers, so no one's silly enough to drink drive. It’s tricky, because the whole campsite is outside the Birdsville Hotel, so they don’t have to go anywhere.

Being from the city, tell me your feelings about being at such an event.
There’s this masculine side of things, which is pretty ugly, to be honest. I’d experienced it a few times, once at Bathurst. But that Birdsville race is part of a country race circuit. The other races don’t have as many shenanigans as Birdsville though. It’s a lifeline for the surrounding areas to make some money, and for people in all the remote communities to get together.

One of the first things I notice in this series is its lack of colour, reminiscent of a relic. Go through with me the decision to go black and white?
When I’d started, working for newspapers, colour was more expensive, and you had more control of contrast and tone with black and white. Plus, I was building on this project of horses, and horse culture around the world, so I needed to bind them visually somehow.

But colour can be distracting from the story. Photographers, like Sebastião Salgado and his seminal work The Workers, influenced me as well. He shot black and white his whole career, and you can see the power of it. Certain colours create a mood, and images devoid of colour make the viewer look at images differently.

Why the significance of this work? What made you want to document this?
I was consciously trying to shoot something uniquely Australian, and there’s certainly nothing like this anywhere else in the world. In photojournalism, you’re looking for a sequence of images. If you put yourself in there, particularly where there’s a lot of colourful characters, you’re increasing your chances on imagery that’s good, different, and what people haven’t seen before.

Check out more of Glenn's photography here, and more of Sam's writing on Twitter

For more stories from the parts of Australia that don't often get heard, check out our new VICE series: Australiana

More VICE
Vice Channels