Wild Photos from the World’s Drunkest Horse Race
We talked to the photographer who captured Australia's 1999 Birdsville races.
All photos by Glenn Hunt
This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
Glenn Hunt is a Brisbane-based photographer and photojournalist. In 1999, while living in Adelaide, a city off the coast of South Australia, he drove the 1,170 kilometers [727 miles] to the remote Queensland town of Birdsville. Best known for the Birdsville Races, the event sees thousands of residents for a few days of each year.
Hunt’s work captures this organized chaos—empty cans littering the street, people passed out by the local pub, and the occasional horse or two. Collectively, the photos capture the essence of the Australian state of Queensland at the turn of the century.
VICE: What made you decide to go and document this raucous event?
Glenn Hunt: 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 friend “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 backward and forward 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 ass. 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 portable toilets so people couldn’t get out. His friends pushed it over on him when he was inside though. The thing was just over on its side for an eternity, then the door flings open, and he jumps up covered in shit; Then he his wipes his arms out, flinging shit into the air. He’s going up to his friends, and they don’t want to acknowledge him. About an hour later, I see him standing in the line to take a shower at the only shower block, with a gap of about ten 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 drive; the ones who go on big trips and get piss drunk 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 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 breathalyzers, 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 color, reminiscent of a relic. Go through with me the decision to go black-and-white?
When I’d started, working for newspapers, color 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 color can be distracting from the story. Photographers, like Sebastião Salgado and his seminal work the Workers, influenced me as well. He shot in black-and-white his whole career, and you can see the power of it. Certain colors create a mood, and images devoid of color 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 colorful characters, you’re increasing your chances on imagery that’s good, different, and what people haven’t seen before.
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