Daniella Zalcman on Documenting An Off-The-Grid Eco-Village
November 28, 2016
Daniella Zalcman photographed Runnymede Eco-Village, a forest encampment west of London whose residents created an off-the-grid community.
The residents came from different walks of life, leaving steady jobs or escaping homelessness.
A month after Daniella Zalcman arrived at Runnymede Eco-Village, an off-the-grid encampment near Windsor Castle, the 40 residents were served an eviction notice by the property’s landlord, which intended to develop housing on the land. The proximity of the village to the site where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 also had something to do with the rush to get the “hippies” out, village residents suspected. It was 2014, and the next year there would be a lot of fanfare to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the famous charter, which was created to establish peace between King John and a group of barons with whom he was at odds.
Zalcman, an American living in London, had begun photographing the Runnymede Eco-Village and its residents as a personal project that gave her a break from her primary work as a documentary photographer focused on the aftermath of colonialism. “A lot of my long-term documentary work is generally pretty dark and pretty heavy in nature,” she says. Runnymede and her other projects give her something “to take my mind off of the history of settler oppression and colonialism, the things I tend to focus on.” When she was in London, she would take the hour-long train ride west, and spend time documenting the Eco-Village with a 1950s Yashica-D twin lens reflex camera, which she selected both because she needed something “that wasn’t necessarily reliant on batteries,” and because “It’s also the camera I love shooting with the most,” she says. “It’s also just slow and easy and very quiet, and increasingly I am sort of allergic to my big digital cameras.”
Zalcman’s color photographs of Runnymede offer a detailed look at the community. She was interested in understanding and portraying “the things that are involved to make something like this feasible.” We see community members cooking and working the land, building shelters, playing and caring for infants. Zalcman also paid close attention to details, like an outdoor kitchen area decorated with hand-cut flowers, which reveal something about the personalities of the villagers. Zalcman says the residents came from many walks of life. “It was this mismatched group of people who managed to create a very cohesive, very well-functioning community,” she says. “So I really just wanted to show that, to show all these different lives that were coming together in a really lovely way.”
Some of the Runnymede photos are gathered in a new book, Diggers, which was published this fall by 10(X) Editions, the hand-bound, small-run book imprint run by photographer Sara Terry. The book’s title refers to the name the Runnymede Eco-Villagers gave themselves in homage to another group of British activists who occupied public land in 1649. As Zalcman explains in her artist’s statement, “The original Diggers believed that land had become over-privatized. As long as they were cultivating and caring for the area they inhabited, they claimed, they had a right to remain.”
She’d found the new Diggers while researching sustainable, off-the-grid communities—a subject of long-term interest. When Zalcman contacted them, she “assumed it would be kind of difficult to get them to trust me,” she recalls, but “they immediately invited me out.” She spent time with them over the next year, at one point staying at Runnymede for a week. She found the residents unselfconscious around her camera, and doesn’t recall having to ask permission to photograph. She brought prints of her images to the residents each time she returned, a gesture that the residents, who didn’t have their own means of making photographs, appreciated, she says. She’d often give out prints, and then when she returned, “They’d be tacked up in people’s little houses.”
The villagers also believed Zalcman was nonjudgmental, she says. When the legal battle over their eviction became a news story, “Other media outlets would come and run stories and photos, and would kind of portray them as being dirty hippies essentially, that sort of archetype,” Zalcman recalls. “There was a difference in tone in the way that I presented my work.” Both the BBC and Washington Post photo blog published Zalcman’s photos around the anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Runnymede residents were still in their village at that point, but they were eventually evicted and their village was razed.
Zalcman still keeps in touch with some of the former Runnymede residents. “I’m always interested in people who intentionally choose to defy convention,” she says, and she was drawn to the way the Runnymede Eco-Villagers questioned “the inherent lifestyle structure that we all adhere to…. I have a lot of respect for that way of thinking, and increasingly I’m concerned by how little we seem to regard the environment. We’re approaching a series of different environmental crises that we just continually ignore and so people who are consciously attempting to tackle that, even on a very micro level, I think are fascinating.”