Love, Techno Beats & Community: Covid-19 Through the Lens of a Rave Photographer

“After months of isolation taking a toll on people’s mental health, careers and sense of belonging in what feels like an ever divisive world, raves offer inclusive spaces that welcome anyone with a love for music and dance regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. Fatigued from their social, political and private parts of life, raves were for many people the only depoliticised, non-judgemental spaces to escape to for a break.”

For outside spectators, raving is often associated with loud techno and drum and bass thumping out of the cracks of empty warehouses. Delinquency, hostility towards the police, and drug dealing might also come to mind. With 500 illegal raves identified by the police in Greater London this July alone, it can be hard to see beyond the selfish indifference towards a pandemic that’s infected tens of millions of people worldwide. However, the community’s love and inherently anti-authoritarian attitude that photographer Courteney Frisby captures in her work might offer a perspective that moves away from the mainstream narrative about raving - and might even make you consider going to one too. 

“The thing that infuriates me the most is the lack of voices. We are just being tied up in this group and seen as delinquents, people who party to repetitive beats, when it’s just not like that”, Courteney tells me over a Zoom call. “It’s more like being part of a community, seeing peace, love and hope all together. We just don’t want the government to control us anymore, that’s why we go raving.”

Courteney tells me she feels good about the second lockdown that began November 5. When recounting the feelings, thoughts and fears that the first lockdown back in March evoked in many of us, with anxiety and depression rising dramatically in the following months, we were both surprised at how easy it was to accept the decision at the time. There was a general feeling that, if only everyone stuck to the rules, the pandemic would be over soon and we would go back to our usual lives. In a ceremonious goodbye, she even managed to go to one last rave before the country was put into lockdown. 

“We partied so hard together. We were just holding each other so much, and realised we weren’t even going to be allowed to be touching each other. It was really, really great,” she tells me enthusiastically, embracing herself while basking in the memory. “I didn’t really know anyone that was going to rebel against the rules or anything. I know most of the people did stay at home, but now in the present, I’ve heard stories about illegal parties during lockdown, which I think is really silly to be honest. You’re just affecting really vulnerable people at the minute.”

Before the second lockdown was reinstated, the police shut down illegal raves over the Halloween weekend that were organised in Greater Manchester, South Gloucestershire and London. According to an article in the Independent, a farm owner called the police after noticing 300 people dancing to loud music on his land. Some hostile members of the rave allegedly threw bottles and lit spray cans and after officers blocked off routes into the farm, seven police cars had their tires slashed. Despite the police intervention and the fact that the power supply to the warehouse was cut off, up to 700 people were still at the site at 4am. 

After the first lockdown was slowly eased towards the end of June, Courteney started attending some raves again herself. Raves have historically been a symbol of a pre-emptive force against any authority that tries to limit or restrict its existence. Although this element is still very much part of illegal, underground raving today, parts of the culture have migrated over to mainstream spheres through sheer musical osmosis. Many ravers rushed to exercise their freedom again when lockdown was eased, not only in support of their culture, but also for the sake of a struggling arts sector that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with music venues being forced to shut and artists struggling to make ends meet in an already underfunded industry. 

“I just think we need to go back to our roots really, everyone is just, like, screaming that we need to have our industry back, because what’s the point of living anymore, really?”

On October 14th, Courteney documented a bike ride from Hyde Park to The House of Commons, organised by the Save Our Scene campaign, which started in response to the lack of government support towards the music and arts industry. In order to save live music and hundreds of thousands of artist’s livelihoods, Save Our Scene UK has raised more than £3,500 going directly to Help Musicians, an independent charity that’s supported musicians for almost 100 years. 

“The arts and culture industry has grown over something like 390 million a year, and we contribute about 10.8 million a year to the UK economy”, Courteney informs me, which is based on a report from Arts Council England, supported by official data provided by the Office for National Statistics. “And you have to think about how many jobs there are at risk - there are 300 thousand people’s jobs that have just gone like that, forgotten, and we need to find new jobs, just because our jobs don’t matter. We’re just being ignored so much, and there’s no thinking about people in their industry, and how they’ve worked in the nightlife industry for something like twenty years. They can’t find a new job, get new skills that easily, it’s basically their life.”

It’s hard to imagine a thriving creative industry without the interplay between the bedroom musician and on-stage performer, personal vlogger and filmmaker - and even illegal and legal party-goer. Judging by the extremely high number of raves that have been arranged despite the pandemic, we can assume that another lockdown won’t prevent people from carving out similar spaces again. It might be impossible to prevent the risks they create completely, but we can at least reduce them by offering safer alternatives. 

“My friend, who also works for this company called The Garden Project, organises legal raves. So Halloween weekend they had tents, but everyone had to sit in their own bubble on benches, and you’re only allowed to sit down and listen to music, you’re not allowed to stand up or dance. But I actually really like it this way as well, because you get to communicate more with your friends, you get to properly listen to the music more. And also, we need those raves to save our scene, really.”

After months of isolation taking a toll on people’s mental health, careers and sense of belonging in what feels like an ever divisive world, raves offer inclusive spaces that welcome anyone with a love for music and dance regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. Fatigued from their social, political and private parts of life, raves were for many people the only depoliticised, non-judgemental spaces to escape to for a break. 

“In terms of mental health, I think it’s extremely important in raving, because you’re seeing right now due to Covid, there’s so many suicides right now because they can’t live in this world right now. Raving really helps because you’re allowed to have conversations, you’re allowed to touch each other, you’re allowed to be within your conscious self, you’re with people that are so like minded to you as well. If you don’t really like hanging out with yourself, it’s going to take a big toll on you because you’re just going to feed yourself such negativity, whereas if you go to a rave, people are complimenting you, saying how great you are, so there’s been a massive change to raving due to Covid.”

From dramatic black and white photos documenting passionate protesters to experimenting with distortion, such as the use of fisheye lenses to reflect the isolated bubble everyone is stuck in during Covid-19, Courteney’s photography style changes in harmony with her own self and the world around her.

“My thing at the minute is taking pictures of people touching each other and kissing. I’m really attracted to that at the minute, because obviously, you don’t see anyone outside touching each other and everyone’s got masks on. I like to capture the opposite of that. It’s just so nice how everyone is together and on top of each other kissing.”

The medium allows her to document people’s lives and offer a platform for people to speak about their mental health and thoughts and feelings towards a pandemic with no apparent end date. Although lockdown often makes us feel a little lost in time and space, at least raves offer a break from the ‘I’ and an entrance into the ‘we’, where nothing matters at all besides the bass that’s thumping in your chest and the community you share that experience with. 

Courteney’s Instagram 

Courteney’s Rave Photography Instagram

Courteney’s Photography Facebook

Interview by Annika Løbig