The photographer shares his visual study of Spring Break.
Will Hartley’s lens is familiar with Hackney Wick and Lake Como, has captured Dubai and Istanbul, and embraced Berlin and Cape Town. A North Devon native, the 31-year-old today calls London home, but as a glance at will-hyphen-hartley-dot-com suggests, his prize winning, naturally lit photographs are the product of an arena far greater than the A303.
Pictured here, a showcase from perhaps one of his most rousing projects: Spring Break.
One of those properly all American traditions that Brits usually experience exclusively through the screen, big and small, Spring Break is known for its characterisation as a hotbed of brow raising extra-curricular activity; a considerably more exotic entity than Carnage or any of the UK’s similarly raucous equivalents, in the same “bigger, better” vein as so many aspects of American culture.
Explains Hartley, “I had only ever seen Spring Break in the movies.” And so, inspired by the likes of Harmony Korine and MTV, the photographer flew to Mexico to explore the 60s established tradition firsthand.
Below he tells Wonderland what went down in Cancun, and why he first began taking photographs.
When did you initially become interested in photography and at what point did you pick up a camera?
When I was much younger, my sister was studying Media Arts at college and took pictures of my brothers and me with a medium format camera – I was fascinated by the process, I remember thinking then that I wanted to do something with photography. When I got into my teens I started to film and take pictures of my friends skateboarding, inspired by the videos we would watch when we weren’t skating. I also used to make short movies with my brothers, we edited the film on camera, stopping and starting music whilst filming so it had a soundtrack. They were really bad but in a good way. Later, when I had an interview at a college in Devon, they pushed me more towards the photography course, I still had my little camcorder, but eventually photography took over.
Who or what influences your work? Do you have any photography heroes?
I find inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere; sometimes it’s a movie I’ve watched, something I’ve read, or a conversation with someone. Of course, photography and certain photographers also influence me and it depends on what’s happening in my life at that moment. The first photography book I bought was Ray’s a Laugh by Richard Billingham – that left a lasting impression on me. I was also introduced to Nan Goldin’s A Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Larry Clark’s Tulsa and Corrine Day’s Diary, I found these books so powerful. The photographers show such personal insight into their lives, this made me want to document everything all the time and not miss a thing. They were, and still are, my photography heroes. Since then my photography has evolved and assisting photographers has also influenced the way I work.
You shoot on film, right? What is it about analogue photography that you find particularly attractive?
I have always shot on film, so I find it hard to break away from it. Especially on personal projects. There’s something very therapeutic about it, shooting film, changing the rolls, developing and printing, it really feels like I’ve made something. I understand that photography has become a lot more disposable, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to use analogue photography. I only learnt how to use digital photography properly when I moved to London and started assisting. There are so many advantages of using digital photography and I use it for work but when it’s a personal project, I just can’t let it go and have to shoot on film.
So Spring Break, was this your first? How did it differ or live up to your expectations?
This was my first Spring Break and It was just like the movies, hypersexual, college kids screaming “spring break”, pool parties, DJs, loads of twerking, everyone looked like they worked out all the time. I thought there would be more free parties on the beaches, it was a lot more controlled than I imaged.
I stayed on my own in downtown Cancun in an Airbnb for 10 days. Each day I would catch the bus to the hotel district with a different place in mind to take pictures. Somewhere I had researched before I got there was The ‘Grand Oasis Hotel’, it’s like the Mecca of Spring Break in Cancun, a huge complex with swimming pools, bars, and DJs, so that’s where I wanted to be. The best place for pictures ended up being a club called the Mandala Beach Club, a pool party that spilled onto the public beach. Standing back it was like watching an audience participation theatre performance, with all the chaos happening around me. A couple were having sex in the pool while people dived over them, guys had GoPro’s on selfie sticks filming between the legs of girls stripping on stage, strangers casually kissing and groping each other as they caught each other’s eyes. Drugs and alcohol were freely available and freely consumed. Many of the pictures from the edit were from this one day and my Bronica was destroyed by the end of it.
Cancun looked like a great one to start with, it had a good reputation for being one of the wildest places to go, but mostly it was within my budget as the project was self-funded. I didn’t want the project to focus too much on politics as it was never initially about that, but it was an interesting time to go to Cancun because America and Mexico are so divided at the moment. On my last day in the Grand Oasis Hotel there was a big party going on in a pool and someone dive-bombed whilst wearing a trump mask. People were chanting and security chased him, it was an amazing scene to watch unfold. Later, on the same day, I also saw a bunch of Americans in a pool chanting, “build that wall, build that wall” and they were being served by Mexican waiters. Maybe they were just young and didn’t really see how disrespectful they were being, but I wonder why certain Americans who possibly voted for Trump still chose to go to Cancun for Spring Break?
Crazy. What was the biggest surprise of the trip?
I guess the security. On my first day at the Grand Oasis Hotel, the security personnel wanted to kick me out for taking pictures, which shocked me as everyone was filming on camera phones, GoPros, and other digital cameras, which can be used all over the internet. This then became the most challenging thing as there was a lot more security than I expected. I argued my case and they let me stay if I put my camera away, so I just had to be careful. Most of the Spring Breakers themselves were completely fine with me, it was just one of those funny rules where if it looks slightly professional they think you’re up to no good.
And what were the people like you were shooting?
I thought Spring Break would mostly be American college kids on vacation but I met people from all over the world, Italy, Argentina, England, Australia, and Ukraine. My guess is that, although Spring Break was originally an American tradition, which became big in the 1960s, it is now internationally recognised. This may be from movies and the internet, consequently, people from all over wanted to be a part of it, enjoying Spring Break and experiencing it for themselves. Most of the people I spoke to were nice and just out to have fun, Like anywhere there were people who I didn’t necessarily agree with or like their attitude, but you can find that in any situation; there were loads of pictures ruined by photobombing, but I’d expected that. I’ve kept details of some Spring Breakers, emailed them about the project and they all seemed really excited about it. I asked a few people “why did they go to Spring Break?” – one girl summed it up really nicely, “I go to Spring Break to live, love and make long lasting memories with my best friends.”
You grew up in Britain. What was your version of Spring Break, and how did the two compare?
I grew up in North Devon, so the idea of Spring Break was only something I had seen in the movies, I wasn’t even sure it was a real thing. I went to university in Newport in South Wales, so that’s the era I most associate with Spring Break. We had house parties and I went to lots of free parties and festivals, and they touch on similar themes, but Spring Break was so much more sexual and more glamorous, something I could only imagine on a movie set. Someone said to me, that most people work out all year round to look good for Spring Break, I’m not sure if that’s true or not but I found it an interesting comment, and it shows how important this yearly ritual is to some people.
You’ve mentioned previously that Spring Break could turn into a bigger project.
That’s the plan, if I can explore a different Spring Break destination for a few more years I think it could be really interesting. I don’t want to end up repeating myself, so I need to also look at the nightlife. I had a rule in Cancun that when the sun went down I would head home, but I would be interested to see some of the nightlife action too. Next place? I’m thinking of experiencing a Spring Break in America and would like to go to Miami, but I’m open to ideas, so if anyone out there knows of some great Spring Break destinations or is even going and would let me tag along, feel free to get in touch.