Surreal photos from a two-year odyssey experiencing rural Australia’s Bachelor and Spinster Balls

Placeholder while article actions load

I’m not sure where I first saw Ingvar Kenne’s “The Ball,” (Journal, 2019) but I know the images I saw struck me and stayed with me. The images are striking, surreal even, and unique. That is partly because of the subject matter and partly because of Kenne’s photographic approach. The work is visceral; it almost feels like it is slapping you in the face. It most certainly is asking for your attention. It also leaves you wondering, what am I looking at? There are flames coming from a car’s exhaust pipes; people half obscured and half emerging from smoke and fire; and photo after photo of people clasping beers and smeared in what looks like paint. The people look like they are dressed up for the occasion, too: Women wear dresses, and some men wear bow ties.

It’s not until the end of the book that we are given the lowdown. What we have just seen is the result of Kenne spending two years traveling across rural Australia visiting what are called Bachelor and Spinster Balls. These are events that were originally formed to give young people living in the far-flung locales of Victoria, New South Wales and the Northern Territory the opportunity to mingle and to maybe find a life partner. Over time, the events have evolved into a kind of chaotic free-for-all — an opportunity to disconnect from reality. Kenne goes along for the ride with these young people, documenting whatever is happening in front of the lens, which turns out to be a most surreal scene.

Along the way, Kenne ponders what exactly he has been witnessing. Not being Australian (Kenne is Swedish), he wonders if there is something more to the events than just young people getting together for drunken rowdiness, hoping to meet that special someone. At the end of the book, Kenne has included a fascinating exchange of letters between himself and Australian novelist Tim Winton.

In his letter to Winton, Kenne wonders if these so-called balls are equivalent to the many rites of passage most societies have — like spring break in the U.S., for example. Winton answers that maybe they are, but maybe they aren’t. Winton brings up the idea that perhaps we’ve lost the true spirit of those rites of passage as we’ve commercialized them, leaving us with the thought that maybe these are mostly garish displays put on by corporate interests, capitalizing on older traditions. Well, again, not unlike spring break (or almost any other event, perhaps like one coming up pretty soon) in the U.S. Regardless, Winton says Kenne’s photos don’t need a thorough introduction because they speak for themselves. I’m inclined to agree with that and with Winton’s final sentiment: “Let the poignancy of the pics stand on their own, perhaps.”

You can see more of Kenne’s work on his website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

More on In Sight:

Heartbreaking photos of greyhounds caught in an age-old Spanish hunting tradition

A new book of photographs offers a penetrating look at the segregated South during Redemption and Jim Crow

Mining for gold in the world’s highest permanent human settlement