Published on November 22, 2012 | by Mikkel Stern-Peltz


Dystopia – The warning

Stanley photographed the dim landscape of Redruth, Cornwall [Robert Stanley]

According to people who have misinterpreted a Mayan calendar, the world will end in December 2012, However, looking at contemporary images, one could be forgiven for thinking that it had already ended. Dystopian, gloomy, post-apocalyptic imagery is seeing a golden age in current media, from photography, graphic design and film, to literature, music, and games.

“It’s a lot more popular than it used to be, probably thanks to the internet and a lot of entertainment media” says Robert Stanley, a third-year photojournalism student at London College of Communication. “I suppose the more technology you rely on, the more you wonder what it’d be like if you suddenly lost it all.”

In a recent project, Stanley captured the bleak life in Redruth, Cornwall. “I chose Redruth specifically, because it seemed like the perfect example of a former Cornish mining hub turned into another forgotten community,” he says. “I’ve got a pretty big passion for ‘forgotten communities’ – remote, small and usually quite run-down places where people live their lives but nobody else really knows anything about it.”

The beginning of the end

Portrayals of sinister societies are hardly new; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s A Brave New World, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and even Wall-E are just a few examples of cultural depictions of our world descended into dystopia.

The dystopia-du-jour in films and games is the zombie apocalypse, exemplified by the Left 4 Dead game series and Resident Evil franchise, but the past decade has produced an excess of hopeless futures and gloomy societies that do not involve the undead.

Nine Inch Nails’ (NIN) album, Year Zero, is an imagining of an Orwellian US anno 2022. “If you imagine a world where greed and power continue to run their likely course, you’ll have an idea of the backdrop,” NIN founder Trent Reznor said of the album in a press release.”

The world has reached the breaking point — politically, spiritually, and ecologically. Written from various perspectives of people in this world, Year Zero examines various viewpoints set against an impending moment of truth.”

“It is actually a combination of my obsession with all things Eastern European and the idea of a forgotten community.” Robert Stanley

The album exemplifies the most common basis for dystopian worlds; imagining a seminal shift in the world as we know it.

What would happen if the world ran out of food, if robots rose up against humans, if totalitarian rule was implemented – how would our world change?

Year Zero was accompanied by a series of artwork by Rob Sheridan that featured run-down, monotonous architecture, guerrilla-graffiti, decayed nature, and image distortion to create a dystopian backdrop for the music.

An internet-based ‘alternate reality’ game formed part of the marketing campaign for the album, where a series of websites and offline clues were designed to lead NIN fans on an elaborate hunt to reveal the truth about the society depicted on the album, immersing them in Year Zero’s themes. “I’ll play post-apocalyptic video games to death,” Stanley admits, calling them “insanely immersive”.

In this twilight

An operating room in Pripyat, 2001 [Robert Polidori]

Dystopia is not limited to the future. There is plenty of hopelessness and desolation in the present for artists to capture.

Stanley mentions photographer Robert Polidori’s Zones of Exclusion as one of his favourite works in the genre.

Zones of Exclusionrevolves around the restricted area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the nearby city of Pripyat.

The entire zone was frozen in time when the Chernobyl meltdown forced the residents to evacuate, leaving everything behind to decay in an area contaminated by radiation.

Stanley’s final project for his photography-degree warrants comparisons with Zones of Exclusion, and is a continuation of his passion for dystopian images.

He plans to shoot in the Russian city of Dzerzhinsk, a city that was centred around the chemical production industry. It was a main component of the Soviet Union’s chemical weapons program and, until recently, a ‘closed city’ – completely forbidden for foreign visitors.

“It is actually a combination of my obsession with all things Eastern European and the idea of a forgotten community,” says Stanley. “I really enjoy the bleak, grey, and industrialised aesthetic of a lot of Eastern European cities. The fact that practically no one has even heard of this remote, over-polluted, chemical productions behemoth just makes it more fascinating.”

Another version of the truth

With so much beauty in the world, and so many positive stories to tell, focusing on the negative sides and obsessing over a hopeless future may be hard to understand for some.

Perhaps it is an effort to show the underbelly of our societies, a way to counterbalance the image of a ‘perfect world’, or maybe “artists use lies to tell the truth” as Hugo Weaving’s character in V for Vendetta muses.

“I think maybe the Western world that I’ve grown up in is too shitty to be a utopia, but not shitty enough to be a dystopia. It just ends up coming across as bland and dull, nothing really stands out,” Stanley remarks.

“Gloomy, dystopian imagery from around the world really lets you see the extremes of human civilisation and what people are prepared to live with.”


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