In a remote, mountainous area of southeast Spain, groups of multi-national, non-conformist individuals live out their versions of paradise in temporary, loosely bound, intentional communities. These idiosyncratic spaces—including everything from customized trucks, vans and coaches to other makeshift dwellings—emphasize their occupants’ anti-establishment beliefs and identities. Unlike forced migrants coming into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other African and Middle Eastern countries, the people here have different objectives: they have chosen migration as a lifestyle option. They are attempting to escape society rather than join it. They define themselves through the habitations they create.

Acknowledging the cultural and symbolic values of place and space, these large format photographs examine these international counter-cultural figures. It considers how their neo-nomadic identities are manifested, reinforced and maintained through dwelling, habitat and territory after they are removed from their historical context and places of origin. The intention of the work is to reflect on and question our notions of home, freedom, sense of place and identity within these encampments and draw out some of the inevitable paradoxes, compromises, contradictions and tensions inherent in living an alternative life on the margins of the mainstream.

Distinct counter-cultural sites exist here in hard-to-find places: along the banks of infertile riverbeds, in ravines and off mountain passes, in relative proximity to each other and in continual states of flux. People who reject and subvert the values of conventional society from Europe, North and South America, Japan and South Africa come and go. They make their temporal imprint on the land and local culture through the environments they stage. Dwellings appear and disappear—they are constructed, occupied, then abandoned or destroyed. Often when their original occupants move on, they are then reclaimed by others. Some homes are made inside vehicles and go from site to site, from one country to another. Living in a foreign country away and apart from the place where anti-establishment ideologies were crystalized, their transient homes, their belongings and the sites they inhabit play an integral part in their sense of self.

All of these tribal identities owe something to the attempts of others to live outside society in previous centuries, but it is outsider cultures established in the twentieth century that have had the most direct impact. Some have been impressed by the philosophies and actions of American and European “hippie” culture from the 1960s and 1970s, or the writings and actions of radical thinkers such as Timothy Leary, Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand, which have been subsequently embodied in places such as Drop City, Colorado; The Farm, Tennessee and New Buffalo, New Mexico.

Others come from late twentieth century anti-establishment movements and traditions such as Punk, Rave, New Traveller and environmental protest groups. Among them are Anarchists, hedonists and newer disaffected identities formed at festivals and gatherings from the homogenization and amalgamation of alternative cultures. Like those people with specific beliefs, there are also those with no fixed affiliations and those who are unable or unwilling to live in the confines of conventional society.

In abiding by the unwritten rules and codes of behavior here, most outsiders are accepted and included within these self-regulating temporary autonomous zones. Unlike other intentional communities around the world, these sites do not operate as collectives; attempts at self-sufficient cooperative communal living are limited to small subgroups within the communities. They alienate themselves from conventional modes of living and express identity partly through their situation in these hidden places and specifically through their choice of habitat.

—Ben Murphy, 2016

Exhibition in London:

The Architectural Association Gallery
Ben Murphy
The Riverbed
18 – 31 March, 19 April – 27 May 2017
Private View: 17 March 2017

If you’re interested in seeing other work on this and similar topics, we’d recommend these previous features: Escape, a powerful photobook about individuals in Russia and Ukraine who—in their search for total solitude—have completely excluded themselves from society; The Gleaners, Matt Hamon’s intimate look at a group of primitive skill practitioners who live largely off the grid in rural Montana; and Nomad’s Land, documentation of ephemeral seaside constructions in Tunisia.