When Rachel Bujalski moved out of her apartment and into a boat in Los Angeles, she had no idea that two years later, on her 28th birthday, she would be hoisting herself 80 feet up a redwood tree in Arcata, California. Yet there she was, photographing a man using a compostable toilet in a tree house, all in the name of documenting alternative lifestyles.
It started in February 2014, when Bujalski, a freelance photojournalist in Los Angeles, became overwhelmed with rent prices. She found out through some friends that she could live on a boat in Marina Del Ray for only $400 a month. Realizing she could live cheaply and simply and be more equipped financially to do projects she enjoyed, Bujalski took the leap. “It got me thinking about alternative living and how you can really be creative and do what you want every day,” she said in a phone interview.
Bujalski sensed in herself and in her generation a restlessness and desire to break free from the nine-to-five routine. Her newfound lifestyle was the inspiration for her documentary project “Connected off the Grid,” which focuses on the dichotomy of choosing to live off the grid—on a boat, in a tree house, or without reliance on utilities such as electricity or running water—but staying connected with the technology that is an integral part of our lives.
“I was fascinated by technology being this other home for us,” she said. When she moved to her boat in 2013, she sought a similar balance. “I feel lucky to be on the water and have my laptop right here.
“We’ve gone so far over in our generation that we forget what it feels like to be fully disconnected. Now it’s so cool because we have that choice to connect and disconnect … It’s just another challenge for humans to find that complete balance.”
Bujalski began photographing other people who lived on neighboring boats in her marina and, curious to see how others were adapting to off-grid living, she set out on a two-month journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping in about 17 communities and towns along the way.
She found some of her subjects and their off-grid communities through Instagram and Facebook. “Being on social media was necessary,” she says. People messaged her directions and tips on who to contact during her trip.
Posting photos throughout her trip on Instagram also helped Bujalski raise awareness of her work in the photo community. “It really brought awareness to the project, and people were able to see what I was doing and call me with places to go next … It was kind of like I had a constant friend guiding me with a device and comments.”
Bujalski’s objective was twofold: to learn from people who were fulfilling the lifestyle she aspired to have and to share stories of why people choose to straddle the world of simplicity and connectedness. “I put myself in their shoes and I was able to talk to them and say ‘I’m interested because I’m doing it too.’”
Initially Bujalski wasn’t expecting subjects to open up to her as much as they did. “Once I was superhonest and up-front and said [that] this is what I’m passionate about, I think they were proud to show me how they were making it work.”
Once she earned their trust, it was important for Bujalski to live with her subjects to document their daily lives. “They knew why I was there the whole time, so I would just grab my camera and shoot and intertwine it with the conversation,” she say.
But it wasn’t always so easy. After spending about a week in Joshua Tree, California, where Bujalski began her trip, she got a tip from a commenter on Instagram: Visit a man named Garth Bowles, who lives in a permanent tepee—self-titled “Garth’s Boulder Gardens”—in the nearby desert.
Though he was located only 12 miles from Joshua Tree, it took Bujalski two hours to find him. She describes meeting Bowles as one of the most memorable experiences of her trip. “Following your intuition and letting go—that’s when the best moments happened.”
After three days with Bowles, she still hadn’t been invited inside his tepee, so she stuck around. “That’s my thing, like, I really need to see what the inside of your house looks like,” she recalls saying. “So finally he trusted me enough, and he goes, I’ll show you inside. And inside it looked like a Christmas tree.”
It was adorned, floor to ceiling, with Christmas ornaments and garlands and hundreds of feathers from the peacocks he used to have in the desert, as well as jewels and gold jewelry hanging from the ceiling. Bujalski said it “felt like you stepped into another world from the desert landscape.”
Bowles started going through a box of jewels he had collected over the years. He started putting on his jewels and leafing through photo albums, telling Bujalski his life story. “I just sat there soaking it in,” she says. “I couldn’t believe after three days he was telling me all this.”
But earning Bowles’s trust was just the beginning. Listening to Bujalski’s voice over the phone, you can picture her eyes glistening and her smile widening as she tells the story.
“The best moment was when he was going through all the jewels in the box and there was a small ruby [and] gold ring. He said, ‘Does this fit you?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘It’s yours. You can have it.’ And so I’ve been wearing that ring every day since, and that was at day six of my trip.”
Having this experience and being able to share it with subjects turned friends deepened the connection she made with the people she met. “Collecting these little things that people give you and just to have this great feeling of friendship—it was probably one of my favorite moments.”
Throughout her trip, Bujalski juggled her two identities as a photojournalist and an aspiring off-gridder. “I think the camera was just an excuse to explore what truly interests me, and I think now that I know that, it comes out in my photos … As a photographer, it’s the most exciting career because it’s just about loving and exploring life to the fullest, and your camera gets to capture that.”