Dream or dystopia? Take an immersive journey into life off the grid

23 December 2021

Humanity’s relationship with nature has never been more complex. We are growing more and more aware of how our actions impact the world around us, yet finding an authentic connection with nature often seems impossible in an increasingly technology-driven world. It is a dilemma that leads many people to ask themselves: is it ever possible to simply quit the system? Can we really gain a deeper understanding of the world by living off the grid?

In her project Settlers, Russian artist Vera Barkalova documented one community of people who decided to leave their urban, capitalist lifestyles and settle in the Crimean wilderness. But the story she tells is much bigger: one delving into ideas of humanity, safety, and connection in the world which seems to be perpetually on the brink of ending.

Barkalova’s work often covers corporeality, social taboos, and symbolism, using portraiture to capture people in particular environments. Her imagery often has a dark, enigmatic, surreal quality: something which puzzles or intimidates the viewer while drawing them deeper into a more complex story. Settlers started when Barkalova was in Crimea herself, and heard about a community of people living in caves amid the rocky landscapes, grottos and sand dunes of the shoreline. She happened to meet one of the settlers at a local train station, and ended up spending two months documenting the recluses.

“The atmosphere is very secluded, and there is a feeling of being immersed in nature without any signs of human civilisation,” Barkalova remembers. “I was deeply interested in this paradise-like world. There was a very thin line between you and nature. Material life there is incredibly scarce; you need nothing.”

The people she met among the rocks all had different life stories: some were monks, some were drug addicts. Some chose to live among the settlers for a little while, before returning to the city. “The feeling of community among settlers is unique. There are no leaders or followers. It’s not important who you were in the past, or who you are now in terms of social status. Everyone respects each other. Everything is open, you can visit different people to borrow things, or spend time meditating or doing other things,” the photographer recalls.

Settlers is deeply rooted in the stories of people, but this is only a departure point for her complex and cryptic narrative. The central theme of this enigmatic, fragmentary story is the immense power of nature. “I am interested in exploring nature in its immersive and limitless qualities,” Barkalova says. “But the main feeling is one of vulnerability, the idea that any of us could die any second, whether by accident or simply by letting your consciousness float away from this mundane life.”

The visual journey contained within Settlers seems almost unreal, and there is an unspoken invitation to fill the images with symbolism. As a whole, the project could be about the reinvention of an ancient legend, or a dystopian future where people cling to the last artefacts of human civilisation: plastic bags, religious tokens, and rubber sliders all seamlessly fit into the otherworldly picture.

“The sense of this story as partly fictitious was my intention. I think documentary photography speaks in a language which is very recognisable for the viewer: it’s easy to express pain through a pleasant-looking image. For me, that’s too boring and predictable,” Barkalova explains. “I have my own language which I had to harness and tell the story. This story for me is about people who wanted a fresh start, and for a brief moment touched something completely new.”

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