“I felt like a continental explorer in the mid-19th century—finding my way through the forest, following painted rainbow symbols on rocks,” says photographer Kevin Faingnaert, recounting his trek through Bierzo, a mountainous region in León, Spain. “From far away, I could see a bright yellow dome pop up out of the forest. I knew it was Matavenero.”
That dome, a whimsical landmark in a sweeping landscape, is the social center of the isolated eco-village Matavenero. The geometric structure is where the 60-some inhabitants hold meetings and celebrations. Other amenities include a small school, a shop that sells some basic necessities, a bakery, a bar, a library, and, my personal favorite, a communal sauna.
Many of Matavenero’s original inhabitants worked in mining, but according to Faingnaert, the village was abandoned in the 1960s after a decline in Spain’s mining industry. That wasn’t the end for Matavenero. In 1989, the town was reinhabited by five German friends who, inspired by the ideals of Rainbow gatherings, searched for a place where they could live in harmony with the Earth. “They heard about Spain’s many abandoned villages and headed out to look for one where they could settle in,” he says. They were later joined by a few Danes from Christiania (an autonomous community in Copenhagen), and the group began to reconstruct what would become the eco-village that exists today.
Faingnaert, who first heard of the village through a friend, was intrigued by these off-the-grid inhabitants. Who were they? How did they live? Why did they abandon their old lives? He set out to learn what makes someone “turn away from the way of modern life, based on efficiency and consumption” and what their lives look like after pulling the plug.
So he researched the community—and how to get there—on a website created by a few of the inhabitants. That’s when he discovered that there are no roads to the settlement: Arriving by motorized vehicle isn’t an option. Getting there requires a three-hour hike through dense forest, a fact that, he says, “only added to my imagination.”
As he approached the village, he says his “heart rate increased with every step.” He hadn’t told anyone he was coming. “The first inhabitants that I met were a couple of 16-year-old punks,” he says. “It was so strange to meet real punks in the middle of the mountains. They introduced me to their parents, who were real hippies. They welcomed me into their house—part trailer, part wooden cabin.”
As amazed as he was by the people he met, from babies to a few folks in their 70s, he didn’t make any portraits the first week that he was there, opting to keep his camera in the tent he had pitched by the yellow dome. “I only took photos at sunrise, before the village woke up. I wanted to get to know some people and get comfortable with them before telling them about my plans of a series on Matavenero,” he says.”I knew most people didn’t like cameras, so I didn’t want to scare anyone off.”
Over the course of his month there, Faingnaert got to know the residents and their reasons for relocating. “Some couldn’t live with the pressure of modern, efficiency-based society, some just wanted to live closer to nature and the land, some wanted to escape personal problems, some are looking for a peaceful place to work on their art,” he says.
He also learned about the logistics of their daily lives. “Every inhabitant has a specific communal task. Some people teach, some are in charge of the bakery, some take care of the paths and canals, some work in the village garden,” he says. And though money isn’t the point of their labor (some residents do accrue income from working or selling goods in nearby towns or from the sale of their former homes), everyone is expected to do their fair share of work.
“Life in Matavenero is not exactly easy,” he says. “You need to be practical and you need to know how to work on the land.” Faingnaert explains that many who gravitate toward the utopic vision aren’t able to carry it out. “Not many people who move to Matavenero end up staying there. More than half of newcomers leave again within the first year,” he explains.
Sharing one computer with an entire village, having to walk to the top of the mountain for cell phone service, and being a three-hour hike away from the nearest town would certainly be an adjustment. But those who commit to living eco-friendly and self-sufficient lives in Matavenero experience “a kind of freedom you can never feel in the ‘outside’ world or system,” Faingnaert says. “They don’t live for work or money. This sense of freedom really binds them together. They’re all people who are transforming their ideals into deeds and hard work.”
To see more of Kevin Faingnaert’s work, visit his website.