James Whineray has been working on the Dune Life project with Joel Wynn Rees for a couple of years now. Together they've been documenting the unlikely combination of intoxicated rev heads, unsuspecting tourists, and church groups that is Lancelin Dunes, a massive expanse of sand roughly two hours north of Perth. If it were any more apocalyptic and lawless someone would need to build a Thunderdome out there. Recently photographer Ben Thompson talked to Whineray about the project and how the collaboration came together.
VICE: What drew you to the Dunes?
James Whineray: Joel was just passing through, he was working on another project where he was photographing a fishing village just north. He was driving through and took a couple portraits. We shared a studio at the time, and we were looking at them and we thought it would be a great photo essay—there's a really interesting community, an interesting subculture, just something there that we thought we wanted to bring to the public's eye.
More importantly, the bogan [Australian slang for a working-class person- label is often misinterpreted here in Perth. There's a lot of bogans here of course and a lot of bogan haters, but the dunes aren't entirely bogans. We met a doctor, bakers, artists, and fucking whatever who were all somehow interested in this activity of going to the dunes.
The biggest part of the project was meeting the people. I'm sure you know taking photos yourself, you can't just walk up to someone and get a decent photo, we were spending hours with these people to get a good shot of them.
We didn't get too into it in the project, but there's a big tourism presence in the dunes too. It seems like they're sold a tour package where they go to the Pinnacles and the dunes is one of the stops. But it seems like they're all there to see this Mad Max–like Australiana culture, which is pretty weird. It was just hard to document though, we took a lot of portraits of the tourists but it didn't quite fit.
So the way we presenting this aspect of tourism is via a short film. You often see tourists with a Handycam walking down the street just pointing it into empty space. This is how we wanted the film to look, nonsensical.
I always think about what happens to that footage afterwards, like there're always German tourists on the Great Ocean Road just filming rocks, do they go home and sit in their lounge and make all their friends look at their rock footage?
I guess? So we've made a video like that of the dunes, which is our interpretation of the tourism aspect of it all.
Do you think tourism is impacting the place in a good or bad way?
I feel like a lot of people come to Australia, get off the plane, come see the dunes, they get taken back to the plane and go home, which is a really weird representation of Australia. I've got really mixed feelings about it, it's a mesmerizing, beautiful place and the photos just don't do it justice, but sometimes I wish they took them somewhere a little bit nicer.
What exactly does the "off-road" label mean?
I mean, you don't need a license, no cops there breathalyzing anyone. Your car doesn't need to be roadworthy, just whatever goes. We see guys there putting big V8s in tiny little sand buggies that can do 110 in first gear.
Dudes go there and get absolutely shitfaced and jump in V8s and just fly over the dunes. As well as that you get kids, we met a girl that was four years old with her own motorbike. It's one of the stronger images. She was going 60 kilometers an hour into oncoming traffic, it's no joke.
I don't really approve of off-road. It's a recipe for disaster, they have one death a year up there apparently, I don't know how it's still there.
How did you go about collaborating on this project?
Firstly we felt that the people there might be more approachable as a duo—when you're taking portraits of kids and stuff like that, sensitive subjects, it can be pretty hard to get the right message across, to explain why you're taking their photo. So we thought if we went up as a duo and explained we were working on a project about the dunes, the people, the place, it might be easier. It feels like it's not that common to see photographers working with other photographers—you see collectives and stuff but duos are rare. I don't see it much anyway.
We were also interested how we might perceive things in different ways. Joel shoots a lot of straight up-and-down portraits and I'm more shooting the scene, a few action shots and landscapes. So we thought it was interesting to combine the styles and the whole would be stronger than the parts.
Photography can be a bit of a lone wolf medium, but it makes so much sense to collaborate.
Totally, I'd love to see more of it, I think photographers can be too competitive at times.
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