Way Off the Grid: A photographer documents the primitive lives of “rewilders”

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image by Lucas Foglia

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A child, nearly naked, stands in the doorway of a bark wigwam. A stony-eyed girl absorbs a lesson in how to handle a rifle. A well-muscled man aims his homemade bow at his prey. Rendered in black and white, these images would appear to date from the American colonial period. But in fact, the images were shot in recent years, by photographer Lucas Foglia, in blazing digital color.

Foglia’s subjects come from various backgrounds—they were college professors, punk rockers, Christians—but all share a desire to live a primitive lifestyle of self-sufficiency and independence, outside the trappings of modern American civilization. Many of them he met at primitive skills rendezvous, national gatherings to share the finer points of chipping flint tools, starting fires without matches, and hunting wild game. Although there are “rewilding” enclaves and families all over the United States, Foglia has focused his work in the southeastern states.

Growing up on a Long Island farmstead, Foglia, 26, was raised with one foot in suburbia and one in the country. “We grew and canned our own food and did a lot of bartering,” he says, “so I grew up in that homesteader network.” A family friend first introduced him to the network of rewilders who have served as his subjects.

Most people associate the back-to-the-land movement with the early 1970s, which saw an exodus to communities like The Farm in Tennessee, as well as a large number of individual families who sought a “simpler” life off the grid and in the backwoods. In fact, the ethos of self-sufficiency and simplicity is older than Walden and is alive and thriving, as these photographs document. While there’s no reliable census of homesteaders or rewilders, their numbers appear to be growing, fueled in part by the resurgence of interest in organic farming and concerns about global warming and peak oil.

“This idea of a return to wilderness is in the American psychology,” says Foglia, who is in the fine arts program at the Yale School of Art. “I don’t want to make the lifestyle seem easy. It is definitely hard work. But I do want to make it seem accessible. At exhibits, people respond with a real desire or nostalgia for wilderness.”

Foglia collaborates closely with the families he photographs, living with them for days or weeks at a time and helping them with their daily chores. His images, more portraiture than photojournalism, are often planned and his subjects posed. On his return visits, he brings prints from his last trip and shares them with the people he has photographed. “Instead of simply illustrating a subject,” he says, “I want the photographs to reveal something deeper—the complexity of their relationship to nature and self-sustenance and the psychology behind the desire for independence from the mainstream.”

The best of his photos explore this human relationship with wilderness, and the special libertarian independence zone of the American psyche. Some may see the people in his photos as freaks. A more appropriate view, in light of current political and ecological events, might be to see them as guides.