An Intimate Look Inside a Modern American Commune

A photographer documented the people who are going against the grain of “society as we know it.”

During an impromptu skinny-dipping session in the pond on the property of the commune, Daniel and Jon lift Stephanie skyward. Removed from society, life there operates at a much slower pace. Days are filled with work, but evenings are filled with relaxing and enjoying each other's company.
Photograph by Sarah Rice

For most people living in modern society, a sense of community is hard to find. But for one rural Virginia collective, egalitarian values are held in high regard.

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Photographer Sarah Rice was first drawn to documenting the southeastern commune back in 2011. “I was particularly interested in communities that are formed of people who have made drastic decisions to leave society as we know it, such as cloistered nuns,” Rice tells National Geographic.

Stephanie said she moved to the commune to get back to the land and learn more about farming and sustainable living. She raised ducks from babies and then learned how to slaughter them.
Stephanie said she moved to the commune to get back to the land and learn more about farming and sustainable living. She raised ducks from babies and then learned how to slaughter them.
Photograph by Sarah Rice

It began as a two-week photo essay, but unintentionally developed into a six-year project that intimately captures the rawness of rustic living. Through her unexpected compositions, the rituals of the everyday - farming the land, slaughtering the animals, milking the goats - become profound acts of survival. The simplicity of their life is elevated to something almost spiritual.

“There is something about this property that feels really magical,” she says. “When you get on to the grounds, it's very clear that things are different. You have to step back and re-think everything. Or think about things for the first time that you've never questioned before.” Over the years, Rice has witnessed how the community’s dynamics have evolved; the ebb and flow of new arrivals, the blossoming of romance, marriage and birth, all make up the particular science of this micro-society.

The commune was founded in 1993 and operates through a non-hierarchical, consensus based structure. Its 72-acre plot is a vista of big open fields, hilly grassland, a pond, and large woodland. After the lengthy admission process, members can enjoy this pastoral paradise as well as a society where everyone has an equal voice. “Our society is built in a particular way,” says Rice. “To see that torn down and built back up, with everything questioned and restructured, is very interesting.”

Most members are in their 20s and 30s and though they all have different reasons for being there, all are united in a strong value system, which places respect for people and the earth at its core. “They are there because they got disillusioned with capitalism,” says Rice. The commune sustains itself off the fat of the land and through a non-profit seed distribution business. “There is a clear respect for each other for the land,” says Rice “But above all, they respect the individual.”

Time moves at a different pace on the farm and though hard manual work is expected, members are encouraged to explore whatever makes them curious. One woman took it upon herself to learn how to raise and slaughter turkeys and ducks, while another learnt how to build a garden that holds rainwater. No idea is considered “stupid”; all thoughts are nurtured and supported. “It’s interesting to see what crazy projects people want to explore when they have the freedom,” says Rice. One person made a ‘goat circus’ as part of their annual founding celebration; which consisted of a series of platforms for goats to climb, constructed purely for entertainment.

But it is not just the structure of their community that feels different from the mainstream; its members appear to exist on another plane of being. “You see it not just in the way they interact with each other and the land but the way they move their bodies through the space,” says Rice. “It seems like a physical, visible difference. It's weird that the space can provide for this, but it does. That's what I see.”

At the beginning of the project Rice experimented with taking photographs of the members outside the commune, on town trips, but that didn’t last long. “I realized the story didn’t exist outside the boundaries of that property,” she says.

The project is called ‘What We Need is Here’, a line borrowed from a Wendell Berry poem, which came to her as she was walking in the woods of the commune one day. The ‘we’ is both the community and herself. “I had this idea that my photography there was about connection but I felt like an outsider in the space,” she says. “Then I realized, the project was about them but it was also a space for me to explore and expand my photography, which is no different to them learning to raise turkeys. It struck me all of a sudden that this land has become important to me as well."

See more of Rice's work on her website and Instagram.

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