Twenty-seven years ago, a 16-year-old boy discovered the culture of raves in Sidney and immersed fully into it. He found a place to be, to have fun, to disconnect from the world and connect with people, to get inspired. At the end of the day, we all look for a place where we feel like we belong. Our community. Simon Burstall was just a teenager shooting his friends while having fun. Many people do so, but that simple fact can make a difference when there is talent running through your veins. It was Simon’s case. 
His love for photography naturally brought him to capture the moments of ecstasy during endless raves. That carefree sensation of living the time of your life. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of what he was creating back then, but today, all that work has been put together in ’93: Punching the Light, “a book that is going down in history as a documentation of a subculture” published by Damiani Books. Simon was lucky enough to have a good mentor at school who constantly encouraged him to do better. So, with time, he decided to make his hobby his profession.

He moved to New York and worked alongside respected photographers such as David Sims, Steven Klein or Herb Ritts. What began as a way to escape reality turned out to be a source of inspiration that shaped his future path. Now, he has built a professional career and earned the respect of the industry. This is how a raver became a fashion photographer, and it makes more sense than what you might think. “Raves and fashion kind of go hand in hand. Fashion is music, art, culture. Raves were just that”, he says in this interview. After presenting his book in Europe and the US, and before presenting it in Sidney, his birthplace, we talk with Simon from a retrospective point of view to take a trip through his memories and get to know the book that documents Australia’s raving subculture.
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Simon, how did you discover your passion for photography and how was the process of turning this passion into your profession?
When I was 14, I bought a Minolta underwater camera and started photographing my friends surfing. Every time we went out for a surf, I always brought my camera with me. I didn’t see it as a passion or career at the time; it was just something that I loved to do. When I got to boarding school in 1992 as a 16-year-old, I wanted to take art classes, and the teacher asked me what it was I liked to do. I said, ‘I take pictures of my mates’. He said, ‘Great!’, and threw a 35mm black and white film at me and told me to keep shooting. I would process and print my film during recess, lunch and after school. I lived in that dark room.
My final project was a lot of what you see in ’93: Punching The Light. I focused on the subculture of the rave scene. I didn’t want to go to college or university. I wanted nothing more than to pursue being a professional photographer. The next stage was for me to train as a photo assistant with high-end advertising and commercial photographers based in Australia and learn the business and craft. At the age of 22, I planned to leave for New York City; I wanted to work for the best of the best in the world. But I broke both my wrists skateboarding, so that pushed my plans back until age 24. One cast was on for nine months and the other one for a year and a half, with no use of my thumbs. Even with that injury, I still managed to load film and drive a car. I was determined to not let it stop me.
Your latest book, ’93: Punching the Light, is “a visceral love letter to the dreamland of raving”. Let’s start with a simple question: what is a real rave or what was it like in 1993?
A real rave was like a ‘one-off’ and only the people in the know knew when it was happening and where. We would pick up flyers at a local record shop, Reaching’ Records, or each week flyers were handed out at the raves we were at. There was a local magazine as well called 3D World – that was the Bible of raves. It listed all the parties. You would buy your tickets from a variety of local record shops on the evening of the rave and then ring the phone number on the flier for the location of the party after 10 pm.
The event coordinators would take over these abandoned warehouses or a variety of other venues for the weekend. Sometimes, they would take place hours north or south outside of Sydney’s centre in large fields, hidden in nature or farms. There were a variety of production companies alongside DJs who frequent/headline most of these events and they collaborated with lighting and sound companies as well. DJs like Sugar Ray, Paul Holden, Phil Smart, Abel, Jumping Jack and Ming D – they led the charge. The slipped into a time that was perfect. They would start at midnight and go until 8 am or longer.
What were the vibe, the atmosphere, the music, the people, the dress code…?
The vibe was honestly the best. I never saw a fight. It was all love and friends dancing to good music. The parties would take place at warehouses in the inner west of Sydney. They had lighting companies set up lasers and all sorts of trippy shit inside; sometimes, there were bouncy castles too. It had never been done before, it was something so new and so wild. There had been nothing like this, ever. And each one was different, in a different location. The underground nature of it all. The attendants/community were like a secret society of like-minded people.
No real dress code so to speak at all, the fashion was all it’s own. The fact that the music was so cool, the influence of English DJs and their drugs. Ecstasy was brought in and just made these parties so much fun. It wasn’t all about drugs, it was about the community and a sense of belonging for us as teenagers. We didn’t want to go down to the local pubs and be drinking Jack and cokes and throwing up, it didn’t appeal to us. But being out in an abandoned warehouse until 8 am dancing with your best friends for hours certainly did.
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How did you first get involved with rave culture? How did you know about it or get in touch with it?
1991. A rave called Hardware, I was 16 years old. It was at Darling Harbour’s exhibition centre and it was the first time I ever did acid – microdots. I went with my mate Ben Hansberry and we were the first of our friends to do that. I don’t recall how we found out about it, but it was life-changing.
Living so many parties like those must have created loads of great memories. Which is your most special one? Your best anecdote?
There are so many great memories, they really all blur into one. The experience of the whole thing. The feeling and the thrill of them all. There is one moment that I talk about in my diary. There was a party called Space Cadet. Myself and all of my mates were dancing all together and peaking on the same really good E for hours. It was very special. There are so many… each night had new adventures and experiences, new places and faces.
And the worst?
The worst memory is probably when I put my mom’s Corolla over the side of a cliff about a hundred miles north of Sydney. Our car was saved by coming to rest on a tree – ‘the tree of Life’, we called it after. All of my mates had already taken their acid, but I thankfully had not. We all climbed out the one side of the vehicle that we could get out around 1 am. We waited until sunrise for one of the local farmers to get a tractor to tow my mother’s totalled car out of the ditch. Then waited another four hours for my parents to come get me and take me back home. Not much was spoken on that ride home.
“Raves and fashion kind of go hand in hand. Fashion is music, art, culture. Raves were just that.”
Also, what was the most memorable rave you were in?
Happy Valley II, Hardware, Psychosis, Space Cadet, Ascension… All epic and all memorable! To be honest, each one was very special and exciting.
By that time, raves were an underground movement and those parties were illegal. Have you ever been arrested for being there?
They weren’t exactly illegal because it was just a gathering of kids dancing. The raves were properly produced by DJs and promoters. The warehouses/pubs/bowling clubs were rented out to them. Never been arrested.
Ok, let’s get a bit more into your work. What inspired you at the time of taking a picture? What were you looking for?
I was an insider and had access to all this. My teacher was really encouraging, so much that he came with me to a party at 4 am and sat with me for hours and taught me composition and the use of backgrounds. My peers knew at the time that these pictures were special, as I did. I remember like it was yesterday standing on industrial fridges with my camera. The fridges were shaking underneath me with bass with a sea of teenagers in front of me at 8 am. I didn’t know what depth of field was or how to focus, but I just knew and felt that I had to capture this. And I knew then, when I was taking the pictures, how special they were and how special they are today. I made sure I was never shooting with flash. I didn’t want to impose on the feeling that everyone was experiencing, so I chose only to shoot early morning or long exposures inside. I wanted to keep that intimacy.
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Raves became a social movement and even a fashion aesthetic. How was your look back then? What was your favourite outfit to dance all day long?
Our clothes were mostly purchased through hours of thrifting. I personally loved a large denim bell bottom that was bigger than the shoe and usually dragged over my caterpillar boots or my favourite navy blue Filas or the classic Air Max 90s. I would wear a ‘70s-style polyester bowling shirt that would stink by the end of the night since polyester doesn’t breath. On top of that, I would wear a grandpa-style cardigan that was quite fitted, over the top as well. We were all so skinny, and in these clothes it was quite funny.
Drugs go hand in hand with raves; that’s undeniable (laughs). Were you cautious about getting high to take better pictures, or the higher you got, the better the photos?
I separated it a little bit. I would make time to shoot the pictures when the sun came up. After I danced all night, I would then go back to the car, get my camera and come back to take pictures. The camera was always with me.
In 1992, when you were 16, you moved to Sydney’s city centre for a boarding school. That’s when you discovered raves. But how did you manage to combine school and parties? Was there any moment where you thought you had to stop?
I was a ‘weekly boarder’, so therefore, I went home on Saturday morning after sport and went back to school on Sunday night, often without sleep. We would have a dorm room meeting at 8:30 pm and I must have looked like death – and often stoned. All the time, I knew what I was doing was pushing the envelope, especially in 1992 as I was sick with mono and my immune system was shot – I was consistently sick with colds or a cough. I did stop raving once I started my career, and also, the rave scene fizzled and became commercial and just wasn’t the same community with 13-year-olds sucking on lollipops.
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Later, in 2000, when you finished school, you moved to New York and started working as an assistant for respected photographers such as David Sims, Steven Klein or Herb Ritts. How was the experience like? What did you learn from each of them?
The first thing, assisting in Australia is different than assisting in NYC. In Australia, you are a jack of all trades, you work on all levels of the assisting role as soon as you start. In NY, in fashion, there is a structure and there are different roles that you work your way up to become a first assistant. You start at fifth, sixth or seventh assistant and work towards a first-position role. As a first assist, you work closely with the photographer, the creatives, and clients directly. It’s basically the last step in the apprenticeship so to speak before going out on your own. There was some sort of camaraderie as assistants – you worked hard as a group together, go into battle together. Film was being shot back then, so there was a lot more work to be done compared to nowadays.
Digital has made life a lot easier for commercial aspects of the job but has also made assistants kinda lazier and it’s by default due to technology. They don’t need to really know film speeds, light metering or running different stocks with different camera setups as you have more wiggle room with digital. It was an incredible time to be a photographer and one of their assistants. The whole feeling on set was so different than it is now. In addition, I also learned how to conduct the ‘show’. These guys had thirty to fifty people on set. We go eighteen to twenty hours then back on set at 6 am the next day. I learned the structure of photoshoots, the waiting to start, and when it’s go time, you have to be ‘on’ and ready to shoot. Your energy makes or breaks the day. You are the captain of the ship and people are always looking at you for the answers.
Editorials for publications like Harper’s Baazar and V Magazine, advertising campaigns for The Gap or Hugo Boss and even a Cannes Lion Award for your work with Lâncome. What brought you to the fashion industry? What made you move from raves to fashion?
Australia at that time was predominantly about advertising work. And really good work! Very clever, great tag lines and photography. Australia was getting accolades for their advertising campaigns internationally. New York was very fashion-driven, the pinnacle of the fashion world, so therefore, it was a whole new level and style of photography that I wanted to be a part of. I just always loved fashion. Raves and fashion kind of go hand in hand. Fashion is music, art, culture. Raves were just that. What was cool and underground at that particular time.
’93: Punching the Light gathers together your work during 1992 and 1993. It must be amazing to have all your work together in a book, but especially if that book reflects all your youth memories and what I guess were some of your best experiences. What do you feel when looking at it? Do you get nostalgic? Do you get those goosebumps we have when remembering happy times?
The process of putting this book together over three years really brought everything back to me. I reached out to friends I hadn’t spoken to in twenty-five years. Reconnected with people who are in the book and still getting Facebook messages from people in the book that I didn’t even know. I have been looking back at the music from that time and putting playlists together. Friends are sending me their old flyers. I would have to say the actual book is a small portion of what has come up for me as far as nostalgia goes. I feel incredibly proud looking at the book.
It was also enjoyable to work and hear my designer’s (Ed Martin) reactions to my diary entries throughout our three-year period on this project. He is fifteen years younger than me, so seeing his enthusiasm on the subject really validated the project for me as well. He and I worked closely together on different sides of the country and only finally met recently at the NYC book launch. I can’t thank him enough for his patience and work on this project. Also, going to Bolonia (Italy) to print the book at Damiani printing house with someone who has been printing books for more than thirty years was an amazing experience. Being my first book, I have learned so much about the whole process.
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Now you are a father of two. Imagine they discover a new underground social movement the way you did. What advice would you give them? Has any of them inherited your rebel spirit?
I think it’s the nature of the beast. We become teenagers and try and find some sort of outlet or a place to feel like you belong. I know something will come up and I just hope that they feel open enough to talk to us about it and anything. I know I had that same relationship with my parents, they knew what I was up to. As far as them being rebels? They are 4 and 2 years old, so hard to say.
You have organized a few parties in Europe and New York to present your book. The next presentation is in Sydney, the original place where the photos were taken. Does it have a more special meaning to you? Do you have something different in mind for this presentation? Maybe recreating a rave from back then?
It is very special for many reasons. It is where the pictures took place, it is my birthplace. Regarding the party, I just don’t know if a bunch of 40-year-olds jumping around in a warehouse is something I would be interested in hosting (laughs). It would be fantastic to get the young people involved and get that crowd to come, of course. I’m glad to see and hear that this book can be related/excite by both young 20-somethings to the people in their forties who were there. The New York opening had a great mix of people. We set up a mini rave downstairs with a live DJ, projections and flyers thrown all over the floor. I would love to do that again in Sydney.
I have been approached by the New South Wales State Library to add the book, diary and all memorabilia to their archives to be used for visual references for teachers and students throughout Australia. This book is literally going down in history as a documentation of a subculture, which is very exciting. Ideally, I think there are many opportunities in Australia. I would like to put photos up at a gallery and have an exhibition of the photographs and diary entries as well as book signings and talks throughout the country.
1993’s raves were quite a long time ago now. But has that raver spirit accompanied you all your lifetime? Do you still keep it?
Yes! I still love the music. All music in general. I suppose for me, it was such a poignant period. I fell in love with photography at that point in time, taking those pictures. Raves hold a place in my heart. It was my coming-of-age story. I am still madly in love with photography. Now, when my wife and I can get out, we love to go for a dance when we can. And I still love that too! So I suppose some things never change…
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