These Photos Capture American Life on the Fringe

Photographer Rachel Bujalski's subjects thrive outside of the mainstream.

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May 1 2017, 4:08pm

Welcome back to Doin' Work: Flash Interviews with Contemporary Photographers. Here, I celebrate the photographers who inspire me and offer an easily digestible bite of their personalities and art.

This week, we have Rachel Bujalski. She's a documentary photographer living and working in LA. Her work examines the lifestyles of people on the fringes of America. For the past four years, she has been working on freelance assignments for Wired, National Geographic, and VICE. She's also worked on long-term projects like Connected Off-the-Grid, which documents those who have abandoned the American dream and chosen alternative places to live, such as trees, teepees, cars, and boats.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Bujalski as a child

VICE: Where do you live and work and how does that impact your photography? Rachel Bujalski: I live and work out of my sailboat in Marina Del Rey, California. When I'm not on my boat, I am living out of my 4Runner on the road. I started living on the sailboat to save money on rent, so I could travel more. It inspired a long-term project, Connected Off-the-Grid. After I pared down my material things, I realized the community around me was doing the same thing. I started photographing my boat neighbors and then set out to look for other forms of relatable alternative living—people living in cars and vans, in hand-built shacks, in trees and teepees.

When and how did you get your start in photography?
I started taking darkroom photography in high school and was always setting up random photo shoots with my sisters at home and at our family's cabin in Wisconsin. Then, in college, I worked as a staff photojournalist and photo editor at my school newspaper.

What compels you to pick up your camera?
I am constantly curious about how other people live. I want to know what it is like to live on a commune, be anchored at sea, or the reasons someone would want to climb a tree to go to bed. I want to know all the challenges and lessons that come with a life different than mine. I love finding a person who could be my complete opposite on the outside and using my camera as a tool to find out how we are exactly the same. It becomes a game to find true humanity under all the visible differences.

What are you working on now?
I have a few projects in the works. Right now, I'm directing the film version of Connected Off-the-Grid. I'm revisiting previously photographed subjects. But it has a deeper level: interviews and aerial photography to emphasize their environment. Because I have to be shooting as well, I'm continuing a series I started three years ago called Digital Drifters and photographing people who live outside and drift from place to place using technology as their "home."

If you had to explain your work to a child, how would you describe it?
I wouldn't just describe it. I would show it. I would take out my work, and we would look at each image like we were going to read a story. I would let them come up with all their own questions to trigger a dialogue. We would talk about who lived in the place or the house, why they live there, what their life is like, and expand their imagination as much as possible.

Do you make a living as a photographer?
Not 100 percent yet, so I get creative with my sources of income to support my career. I take jobs that let me have as much freedom as possible, so I can jump on the road whenever I need. I will get artist grants, sell prints, take photo commissions, and do certain event photography and assistant work when I'm not on the road.

Is there an image you feel you're best known for?
This image of Tess and her friends on their car from my series Connected Off-the-Grid perfectly describes my shooting style and who I am as a person. While I was on a road trip taking pictures, I saw them at the laundromat, out of the corner of my eye. It seemed like they were living out of their car, so I pulled over. They were. We bonded instantly, and we shared stories of living on the road while I took photos of them hanging out.

What, if anything, frustrates you about photography?
Nothing, because if I get frustrated, it just means there is a challenge that I need to work through.

Describe your working process. 
My process starts with a specific question I have about life or about a topic or challenge I'm currently facing. Then I take my camera out, with whatever question in mind, and I have conversations with friends and mostly strangers, which I document along the way. The conversations take on their own life—the process becomes a journey—and I don't stop until I have a body of work that helps me find some possible answers.

Describe the approach you take when establishing a relationship with a subject.
I spend a lot of time getting to know my subjects. Being completely vulnerable, open, and honest from the moment I meet them is really important to me.

What do you think of the vast sea of online photography? 
It's great that so many people want to communicate their thoughts with their photography online. Utilizing platforms like Instagram and Facebook are perfect ways to make your own voice heard and tell your own story. My approach has been to stay consistent and to never stop sharing my work, because you never know who might relate or connect with something you post.

What are you most proud of in terms of your work?
I'm most proud of the stories behind the images. I love sharing moments with complete strangers—I love forming a bond with the subjects in my photos, which no one would know if they looked at the image. These moments always mean something to me, and I hope they do for them, too.

What are you doing when you're not making pictures?
When I'm not making pictures, I'm either telling stories about pictures I made or daydreaming and planning the stories that will be important to tell next.

What do you think the future of photography might look like?
I think editors will start being more selective with what gets published and really place the most value on the imagery that drives change and starts conversations.

Name three contemporary photographers who blow your mind.
Matt Black, Catherine Opie, and Alex Prager

The most important question of all: dogs or cats?
I like them both for their different personalities. Dogs, because they treat everyone equal and pass no judgment no matter who you are and love you despite all your flaws. Cats have a confident independence, and their instincts allow them to make do with what they have.

You can find Tara Wray's work on her website.

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