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Do You Believe In Magic? – Honouring Them And Their Experience

This series is an intimate visual exploration of the psychedelic festival culture of British Columbia, Canada. It’s meant to be playful but also honest. I was trying to communicate something about the experience that I didn’t see in the videos or photos of others who cover these festivals. There’s something ineffable that happens at these festivals that I wasn’t expecting before I went. The experience is so unique and so far outside our normal reality and experience of life.  It was like being in an imaginal reality. People escape the constructs of consensus reality and create a magical world to explore previously repressed or unacknowledged parts of themselves. What you discover can change you, can shift your values, and you take this experience back into your everyday life.

Right before I went to my first festival I was in a bit of a funk in my life, feeling somewhat apathetic about the dreary state of the world and was relatively uninspired. An old childhood friend happened to be passing through Toronto and was driving back out to British Columbia, where he had moved over a decade earlier. He talked about these festivals with a lot of passion. I was a bit skeptical and even a little cynical, but the idea of a road trip across the country was definitely appealing. It was about five days of driving across the continent and the trip climaxed with a three-day festival on a mountain. The setting was beautiful and the people had an optimism and playfulness I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I had a great time and loved shooting it. The openness and playfulness of the culture really drew me in. Since then I’ve been going to a few festivals a year and it’s become an integral part of my life.

When I started to attend these festivals, my life changed like I could have never imagined. I discovered a sort of magic in the world that I had felt as a child but had grown out of or forgot about. I realized how caged and limited I was by the cynicism I had inevitably adopted from my urban lifestyle. I wanted to share this new experience. To show people there’s a whole other way of being in the world, that being grown up doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or be vulnerable. I think it’s easy to dismiss these festivals as indulgent or excessive or immature, as I sometimes hear, but that’s not my experience. I found that being outside my normal life, outside the normal world, there was a freedom. Normal rules no longer applied. I wasn’t bound by my usual identity and that was liberating. I was able to get out of my rigid patterns and with the help of psychedelics and dancing, I was able to have some really profound and insightful experiences.

The amazing thing about these festivals is how open and genuine everyone is. I made so many amazing friends and formed these deep and meaningful bonds over the course of just a few days. The friendliest places I’ve ever been have been festivals, it’s a very supportive community. This was a huge inspiration to shooting, I wanted to capture the magic but I didn’t want to spoil the moment. I wanted to respectfully photograph people when they were at their most vulnerable, and this became my focus. The question was how could I honour their experience through these photos without objectifying them. So often someone will pull out their camera in and it will change the vibe, people will close up a bit and feel self-conscious. So, I explored how I could get around this, and it was really all about how I approached someone.  I took the time to really look them in the eyes and show that I was respecting them and their experience and their self-expression. I connected with the person and gave them a little nod and sought permission before I raised my camera. Then I’d put my camera away. I’d really choose my shots. When you have the camera out too much people start to look at you as a photographer and they either start performing for you or avoiding you. I wanted to avoid these reactions so I kept my camera hidden most of the time and really immersed myself in the experience.

The working process evolved, as I went to more festivals I actually started shooting less and developed a lot more awareness about how my shooting was impacting people’s experiences. I went from a voyeur to a participant. I made sure I was as engaged with what was happening around me as anyone else. I didn’t just want to capture the experience, I wanted the experience too. The experience is so beautiful because it’s co-created, everyone there is bringing their own unique energy and expression and I wanted to be a part of that. So, I’m very careful about when to bring out my camera and also make sure that even when I’m shooting I’m still connecting with people and not hiding behind the camera.

Aside from loving the experience and culture, I’ve had a long-running interest in consciousness and consciousness-altering experiences. I got interested in psychedelics in my early teens and in my early 20’s I started studying Buddhism, meditation and transpersonal psychology. I’m currently studying to be a psychotherapist.

I also grew up skateboarding and loving rebellious counter-culture. For a long time I felt like I was leading a double life, I would party a lot with my friends but also attend lectures on eastern philosophy or training in transpersonal therapy.

These festivals were a place where I could really marry these two disparate parts of myself. I felt both parts were accepted there, I didn’t have to stick to any identity or rigid way of being, I could explore myself and express myself with more freedom than I was used to.

What really struck me about these festivals is the powerful and life-changing experiences that people have, and they are actually quite common and talked about openly. It could be looked at as a modern day initiation ceremony. They are clearly quite immature compared to traditional initiations, but there’s definitely a parallel.

Initiations are typically experiences where people shed an old, less mature identity, and open up to more mature values and a larger and more complex view of the world. While these experiences seem anything but mature, I’d argue that people often do orient to meaningful values through them.  Values like connection, community, self-acceptance, acceptance of others, non-judgment. This was definitely my experience. They are probably lacking values like accountability and responsibility, but even that is debatable. The thing about festivals is there’s so much freedom, you can really turn your experience into whatever you’d like. But often even those going just looking to get high and goof around end up having surprisingly profound experiences.

I had been passionate about art since I was very young but as I got older I stopped creating my own.  But most of my friends were artists and art was still a big part of my life.  I was involved with a gallery for a while and thought that would be a potential career path but it wasn’t what I was hoping it to be.

For a while I had toyed with the idea of picking up photography, but I didn’t know where to start and I was a bit skeptical, thinking the world didn’t really need another photographer and unsure of what I had to offer. Eventually though I picked up a camera, mostly with the intention of doing commercial work. I felt a lot less pressure in doing commercial work, I think I was too critical of art to think I had anything meaningful to contribute. It was my friend Rick Indeo who convinced me to start shooting my lifestyle and experiences. I guess I had previously not acknowledged my unique experiences and views of the world and how that could inspire my photos. Once I started to look at things in that way it just snowballed, I started to see all these beautiful and unique moments that no one else was capturing and I started to seek out new experiences too.

Right now I’m in school studying psychotherapy and also working with meditation teachers and a meditation group called Consciousness Explorers Club. My life is looking different all the time, and I’m still exploring what kind of lifestyle I want to create for myself. My practice in photography is informed by my shifting and deepening interests and grows and develops along with me.

I spend most of my life living a very urban lifestyle. I live downtown Toronto and visit other cities often. The work I’m putting out right now doesn’t reflect that so much, and that’s intentional. I decided I wanted to do something really outside the box and focus on the fringes of psychedelic culture as opposed to my day to day urban lifestyle, which I also enjoy shooting but isn’t as exciting for me as it used to be.  With my photos I want to bridge worlds, show people something they haven’t seen before.

The most difficult part of the process for me is figuring out how I want to present my work. I didn’t put out anything for the first 4 years that I was doing photography. I just wanted to keep exploring the practice and the idea of putting out work seemed a bit intimidating because then I’d be defining myself and my work. I’ve lived a very dynamic life and my photos reflect that. I was still exploring who I was and who I wanted to be in the world and I didn’t want to limit my identity or image by focusing only on one thing or one project.

I felt I was still in an exploratory and experimental phase. Eventually, I felt I had so many great photos from these festivals, and it had really become a part of who I was, so I spent months going over the photos and figuring out exactly what I wanted to convey. It took a long time but I’m very happy with the result. I’m still contemplating how to present the photos from all the other projects I’ve been working on.  I have some great collections and I’m always contemplating what direction to take.

My main influence has undoubtedly been my friend Rick Indeo. His photography consistently inspires me and he was very encouraging and pushed me to shoot in the way that I do. I started off shooting digital and he literally put an analog camera in my hand and gave me some film and told me to shoot my lifestyle. Other photographers that inspire me are photographers like William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Alec Soth, Robert Frank, Ryan McGinley, Mike Brodie, Jason Nocito, and Theo Gosselin. Really though my main inspiration are the amazing people I meet in my life, their creativity and uniqueness and beauty and generosity, they are the real inspiration for my work.

When I look at the work of other photographers I’m looking for something real. I’m looking for real moments, real feelings, real vulnerability. I want to see into someone else’s world, I want to see real magic and beauty even if it’s in the most subtle ways. There’s so much beauty in the world, I’m honestly a bit tired of seeing photos of classically pretty people. I want to see something different, something with more depth and originality.

You can buy Jude’s book ‘Do You Believe In Magic?’ on Edition.ly.

Jude Star

Jude is a Toronto based photographer exploring the ways in which fringe cultures aim to subvert normative social structures. He is inspired by the non-ordinary and numinous states of consciousness achieved through psychedelics, music, dancing, and the accompanying culture.

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