Discovering British camouflaged ecovillages.
Words & photos by Fabrizio Bilello
To Begin again from the Beginning is a visual journey unfolding a series of portraits and landscapes depicting life inside two ecovillages camouflaged in the English landscape. The project attempts to explore a reality unknown to most of the British citizens: a growing world phenomenon that is witnessing political and environmental activists moving back to the countryside, committed in creating self-sustainable micro-societies in balance with their natural landscapes; places where their personal and spiritual freedom is no longer under threat.
The two communities portrayed in the project are both located in the South-West of England. The first one I encountered is Tinker’s Bubble, named after the nearby spring water. Tinker’s Bubble is a private forestry land found just next to the bourgeois residences of Somerset. Established in the early 90’s the community counts today nearly 20 people between adults and children. It subsists mainly through selling timber and apple juice from the apple orchard and keeps itself open to woofers and volunteers.
The second community, Yorkley Court Community Farm, has a different story in terms of legitimacy and political activism. YCCF is located on a strip of land at the edge of the Forest of Dean, which was occupied in 2013 by a group of young people dedicated to establish an eco-community in that unused land,whose ownership was unknown even to British authorities. Since the beginning, the establishment of the community has been disrupted by attempts of eviction from British authorities, making the consolidation of the community even more difficult.
Both the communities work as educational platforms and recreational places for the locals: centres where local children can learn about British wildlife, permaculture and bio-constructions.
Although the two communities are substantially different, as one is a private land and the other is an occupied land, both have similar communitarian structures and political stands, as well as methods of permaculture and bio-constructions. The political line is tied to environmental awareness and driven by a wish to lead a self-sustainable existence, leaving behind a small footprint on the planet.
My interest towards this lifestyle stemmed from my personal concern regarding the steady destruction the Western World is causing on the natural world. It was also an inner desire to escape the city (London at the time) and find a place where humans were engaged in a mindful conversation with nature. It was a journey that started from an existential quest, an inner desire to find peace in the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
To Begin again from the Beginning does not seek to reproduce a resembling apocalyptic scenario. It is not the aim of the work to highlight the rough living conditions inside the communities, neither I wish to portray them as survivalists at the outskirts of society.
I rather feel that the project resembles more an Huxleyan world in which the characters are willingly giving up the comforts and advanced technologies of their previous society. A conscious decision to lead a simpler life which, in a way, turns out to be the strongest opposition that political and environmental activists can do within their range of possibilities, escaping and rejecting the laws of capital and exploitation.
Why are hundreds of young people around the globe opting for a community life, even though that means to literally start from scratch? This is the underlying question infusing the work.
To Begin again from the Beginning also refers to a new beginning from a psychological and spiritual perspective: to initiate a disintoxication from a capitalist mindset. To give up the old paradigms we once believed to be true and open up life to endless of possibilities is unavoidably to pass by an intricate and austere beginning.
Observing the lives of these young people and experiencing the daily difficulties of living in the woods, made me realize how much we are dependent and bounded to a system we don’t necessarily agree on. Basic questions regarding our personal freedom raised up spontaneously. Can we actually lead any kind of life we wish and still being part of a system that conducts questionable moral policies? Are we involved and partially responsible for the given outcome instead? Is it really necessary to completely abandon the old world in order to create real and substantial changes?
Through my photographic practice, I tried to explore and stretch the boundaries of documentary photography in order to portray that environment in the most faithful way. The use of a large format camera fostered a reconsideration of the moral issues implied in depicting someone’s life: the slow method of observation forced by the bulky camera is a metaphor that allowed me to slow down my photographic practice and, in doing so, it aligned my working pace with pace of life led by my subjects. A process that held both photographer and subject on the same rhythm: a conscious and contemplated flow of time. The moments of stillness given by the photographic performance, allowed a closer intimacy with the subjects, which eventually turned the pose into a spontaneous and relaxed attitude of them.
The stance I was holding resembles an anthropological outlook, with little trace of description and judgement. However, the distance I held is symptom of a keen curiosity towards that radical choice – perspective that reinforces a separation between the micro-world those people created and the same world they themselves came from. However there is an undeniable attempt to closeness to fill that gap between these two inseparable worlds. The colours and the atmosphere of the forest give life to the images, enclosing the latter in a realm of fantasy, casting a shadow upon the nature of the project. The perplexities on whether this is a documentary or artistic narrative are clear. I like seeing it as a documentary grasping a share of fictional narrative.
The intention of the project however remains unvaried, which can be synthesised as a sociological and anthropological research exploring Western man in his rejection of the ideals and structures of society. After the abnegation of the old world, there is his need of rediscovering ancient knowledges to hold onto and the consequent creation of his own little society.
I wonder how the creation of the latter will affect the bigger picture.