Laura Moya, May 31, 2012
Communal living has been a continuous presence in American cultural history, threading its way through the centuries starting with the Dutch Mennonites in Delaware in the 1600s, soon followed by the Shakers and shorter-lived groups such as the Amana Colonies, the Rappites, and the Oneida Community. Hippie communes of the 1960s promoted the communal experience in full color, adding a new patina to the rejection of society’s norms in favor of alternative approaches to life and work.
Society has always had its citizens who have built intentional communities as they advanced religious and political causes, promoted social reform, homesteaded land, and produced art.
History lesson aside, Lucas Foglia’s book A Natural Order, published by Nazraeli Press, is an important recording of some contemporary alternative communities in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia. The book gives us a series of complex portraits – of people, places, things (and situations) that mostly read as poetry, sometimes with a little slice of “is this slightly disturbing, or is it just me?” to consider: A three-year old girl is dressed in a woodland fairy costume, blue fingernail polish chipped, dirty hands holding a mostly-gnawed deer rib. Chunks of venison lay in blood-pink water in a bathtub, in preparation for canning, surrounded by cheery green walls, a hand-hooked bathmat, and monogrammed towels. A teenage boy sits on a bed dressed in camouflage; gun resting on headboard, a confederate flag with a skull and snake hangs as a window covering. A naked father and daughter play in a pond, she crouches on his chest, he floats Christ-like on his back, eyes closed.
Gorgeously printed as expected from Nazraeli Press, some unexpected elements in this oversized book include a comprehensive reading list (want to hone up on your primitive and homesteading skills, or learn who is publishing some good field guides these days?) solicited from Foglia’s subjects. Also included is a traditional “zine” from a resident of the Wildroots Homestead in North Carolina, illustrated with drawings of bird species and edible plants. Titled wildlifoodin, it serves both as a memoir and a manual (how to build a debris shelter, how to correctly gut a deer). Readers are encouraged to make copies of the “zine” and give them away.
Why do I think this book is important? Because it seems that right now, as a nation, we are at a critical crossroads economically, politically, socially, and environmentally. Who doesn’t feel sometimes like they want to throw their hands up and try to create their own system of self-sufficiency?
The people in A Natural Order have done just that. — Laura Moya
Laura Moya: In a way, you are visually recording the continuation of the libertarianism movement in America – it is amazing that it is still an option in this country to this extent. How do you see your work documenting this movement in a historical context?
Lucas Foglia: From 2006 through 2010, I traveled throughout the southeastern United States befriending, photographing, and interviewing a network of people who left cities and suburbs to live off the grid. People have moved back to the land there for generations because land is affordable and arable, because a well-chosen plot will likely have a fresh water spring on it, and because the libertarian philosophy that is ubiquitous in the region gives a person, family or community the freedom to live how they choose.
LM: There are different communities portrayed in the book. What united all of the communities that you photographed?
LF: There are over a dozen different communities represented in the book. In moving off the grid, some people were motivated by environmental concerns, religious beliefs, or predictions of the economic recession. Everyone I photographed was working to maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle.
At the same time, no one I found lives in complete isolation from the mainstream. Many have websites that they update using laptop computers, and cell phones that they charge on car batteries or solar panels. They do not wholly reject the modern world. Instead, they step away from it and choose the parts that they want to bring with them.
LM: The reality of a “perfect utopia” is most likely non-existent. All intentional communities (as well mainstream society) have a “grey,” if not “dark” side. What are some of the hardships people wrestled with in the various communities you spent time with? What are some of the tensions you noted?
LF: “It’s hard to feed yourself for a year,” Lowell said. “One problem you run into is that most people who are independent enough to try to live separate from worldly things are too independent to listen to each other.”
Living off the grid in the woods can be isolating, and growing enough food to feed a family takes a lot of work. Some communities struggled to maintain their religious observance. Others struggled to teach their children liberal values despite the conservative neighbors. Some of the communities I visited were patriarchal. While most children were homeschooled, they knew a lot more about wild edible plants than they knew about mathematics.
Natalie said “A lot of us who live here came with a kind of post-activist outlook—realizing that the world is really messed up, that nature is being destroyed, and being incredibly dissatisfied with consumer culture and the whole idea of success in modern society. All of us wanted to live close to the land… Of course it’s not perfect, but it’s the closest that I’ve ever seen when it’s functioning.”
LM: Content-wise, your work falls in a place somewhere between documentary and anthropological portraiture – with a good dose of “fine art” thrown in. Talk about finding your subjects, choices in composition, and talk about making “discoveries” in your shooting process.
LF: I met almost everyone portrayed in the book through friends of my family, and friends of my friends.
Photographs to me, are interpretations. Some of the photographs in the book are candid and others are performed for my camera. I worked from the events that were happening around me, and I didn’t make things up from scratch because I think the world is more complicated than the things I can come up with in my head. The photographs I made resulted from my relationships with the people and spaces I photographed, and the narrative of the book resulted from the choice and sequence of the best photographs.
LM: Sometimes the most “natural” imagery (child given milk straight from goat’s teat, people wearing animal skins for clothing) is tremendously strange and exotic to the “mainstream” eye. How is it that we have generally become so detached?
LF: Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” For instance, when I found the black bear at Kevin’s land in Virginia, I was struck by how human it seemed. Similarly, Natalie, who I first photographed in 2006, said, “When I skinned my first raccoon, I cried. It looked so much like a fetus to me. It was really hard. But it’s easy now. It’s interesting how that changes.”
LM: You do well by not pushing propaganda toward your viewer. Talk about how your strongest images are simultaneously “intimate” and “ambiguous” – can you give an example?
LF: Above all I’m interested in making a seductive photograph. I think any photograph that is didactic, that tells a viewer what to think, is easy to forget. My hope is that these photographs provoke people to ask questions and start conversations.
Talia, who also lives at Wildroots Homestead in North Carolina said: “Over the years I’ve come to realize that most people are not going to, nor do they have any desire to, radically change their lives. Most people can’t walk away from the kids’ schools or their jobs or their mortgages, or whatever. They just can’t, and it would be asking too much for them to do it. But they can take some steps in just teaching themselves—learning more about gardening, learning more about food preservation and taking care of their own health. So there are things people can do to become a little more self-sufficient… if there’s any hope at all of being able to transition into a less chaotic life.”