to disconnect and reconnect
Sahara Desert, Morocco
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This is a post that has taken me a great deal of time to put together, both in physical construction as well as the collection of my thoughts that would help make the images you will see here more coherent. But I’ll talk about that more in a minute. I was first introduced to the concept of Restival back in the fall of 2014, when the editors of Majestic Disorder magazine clued me in that they were partnering with this festival that would be more of an anti-Coachella and more a place where the setting and location would be as vital to the experience as the people. My first thought? Sounds expensive.
Over the course of the next six months or so, they kept dropping a little more information on the internet (it should be mentioned that one of the things that separates Restival from most other mainstream festivals is the lack of specific online information you can find about it. This apparently is very much intended). I knew it would be held in the Moroccan Sahara Desert, I knew attendees would be camping out in tents, and I knew there would be yoga. I imagined Restival going one of two ways: either it would be filled with the gluten-free health/body conscious type, or the hippie “everything is special about this land” type; neither of these ideologies are my lane, mind you. Nevertheless, at the behest of Majestic Disorder, I met with Restival founder Caroline Jones in London this past September. Jones is an interesting woman on a couple of levels; for one, she seems to have one speed (easy/casual). Restival was happening in less than two months and she wanted me to come and photograph it, but we had no details, talk about budget that day… she was just there to feel me out and infect me with her halo of positivity, which is her other defining trait. Because her entire mantra seemed to be “It’ll work itself out”, I didn’t trip, and of course, everything indeed did work itself out.
Since Restival was an event that centred around the concept of disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with oneself and those around them, I gave Ms Jones just one condition if I was to be her photographer; I too would ditch technology and shoot the entire event on analog film.
I brought five cameras and 51 rolls of film to Morocco: a Fuji GA645 medium format “travel” camera that would do the lion’s share of the work, a Pentax 67 for portrait and landscape work, and two 35mm cameras — my Yashica Electro GSN and Pentax K1000 bodies. I did bring one digital camera: the little Fuji x100 for special night shots and in the event that there were issues with the film itself while in the desert.
We spent five days in the desert, though for this post I’ve aligned the images in such a continuous way to let them read as a single day. Attendees quickly adapted to the desert and its sneaky relentless sun. Sand dunes for miles in every direction.
One great aspect of having Restival in Morocco was the hospitality we received from the local Berber people there, and Camp Adounia who served as our hosts. Throughout the week they prepared the meals, stoked the fires, transported the water and provided the lion’s share of entertainment in the evenings. They were also responsible for transporting the guests from Marrakech to the Sahara, 10 hours over the Atlas Mountains and through the countryside.
As with most camps and festivals, all of the days followed a fairly routine schedule. Yoga just after sunrise, breakfast following that, then community exercises (lectures, creative workshops, meditation), then lunch. After lunch things tended to get more personal; support groups dealing with various issues like love, relationships, personal traumas. Dinner in the evening, and then campfire activities, Moroccan storytelling, music, and stargazing generally rounded out the day. As for me, I was typically up about 30 minutes before dawn to catch the sunrise, and would shoot all the way through until I went to sleep at about 1:30 am.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things that happened at Restival was how quickly everyone present merged into a mini-community. Including the Berbers, there were perhaps less than 100 people at the campsite. Unlike bigger festivals or camps, this gave each person the opportunity to get to know as many faces, names and stories as they wanted. As far as the demographic goes, the gender makeup was perhaps 8/2 in favour of the women. The camp shifted firmly to the matriarchal by the second day. Most talks therefore, orbited around a female perspective that, it occurred to me, is largely silent in my day-to-day life with the infinite myriad of masculine voices that dominate the mainstream. Since taking photographs was my objective I rarely spoke during the workshops; but I was impressed at how freely the women were willing to share their stories — and that, more importantly — the men in attendance never countered their opinions or feelings in a way discounted the things that were said. Like, this would never happen on the threads that appear in my Facebook feed.
The people who found their way to Restival made up an interesting mix: There were magazine editors and popular bloggers of course, an author from the BBC, designers… but also people who make finding festivals like this on the far reaches of the planet their calling, a few people who simply saw an ad at the back of a magazine and decided to make the leap of faith, and a few whose ability in life is to show up like a blip on a radar and just as quickly vanish. But something about enduring the inaugural run felt special, and by the time we’d all made our way back to Marrakech, the bond formed over the entire group was real. I’d been invited to dinner with a few of the attendees the night before I was set to fly back to the States but opted not to go on accounting of being quite ill, but after considering the experience we’d just had and knowing that I wouldn’t see them for quite a while, I pulled myself up and made my way into the Medina. I expected perhaps 7 or 8 people to be at the dinner, but as it turned out, nearly everyone was there.
It was a bit of a watershed moment I suppose. I’d gone into this wondering about all the ways that snooty and snobbish experience seekers would take the week find ways to glorify their personal brands at the expense of real connection and friendship, but here we all were at the Clock Cafe sitting shoulder to shoulder the way families are supposed to on holidays.