If the true philosopher is to forever be misunderstood, I don’t want to be a true philosopher. It is one of my greatest dreams to communicate exactly to my home people what has happened over the last 3 years, 4000 miles away.
To further your understanding, I would like to tell a funny story. This is the truth about the unforgettable, epic time I accompanied a traveling self-help seminar as their photographer.
Several months ago when I was scrambling for a preferred direction in photography, I was hired by an initiative called Fühl Dich Frei (Feel Freedom is an improper, but good translation). Each year they host multiple seminars around Europe teaching different self therapy methods. This particular session would be called Weil Du Es Wert Bist: Vom Mangel in die Fülle (Because You’re Worth It: From Rags to Riches).
I discovered their suspiciously impressive advertisement in the local classifieds. Per theme of the seminar, they would spend two nights in Munich experiencing the ‘rags:’ Stripping every piece of wealth from themselves to induce a sort of productive ego death. Then after what I would almost call I transitional ceremony, go to one of the most luxurious hotels in Tirol (Austria’s, and maybe Europe’s most beautiful natural area). There they would spend 3 nights with this newfound perspective. All of this was offered for 888€.
But they needed a photographer. Not expecting anything magical to happen, I sent them my standard e-mail. “How cool would it be to have a trip like that for free?” I thought to myself.
I remember being greeted by someone so strangely positive that I was immediately disarmed. He was so excited and sympatisch (German friendly) towards me, and I knew I wanted to do work with him. Planning the details went over smoothly and I offered to work for free as long as he pays the costs of the trip. I was excited to get started.
It was actually a few months’ wait, so I’ll just pretend like it went by quickly. This was the condition of things as things started warming up again.
We had been telephoning back and forth for a few weeks getting the details straightened. What kind of shots he wants, if he should bring his own equipment, legal protection for the images of the participants… The list goes on. At that point shortly before the seminar, I learned some interesting things: They are mostly middle aged women, this seminar has a reputation for being very emotional, and there are two younger people doing an apprenticeship. Ready for everything and excited to document the experience, I had high expectations.
But my expectations didn’t go high enough. I met the seminar leader Norbert at a grungy dance Studio in the Munich Kultfabrik. I was flabbergasted, enthused, incredulous, skeptical, and already going crazy with my camera. Everyone participated in a round of get-to-know-you games, even though it seemed like the community was already pretty tight. We warmed up with a strange, free-moving dance session.
Our first activity shocked and amazed me, but it was only the first to come. As if they had seen each other yesterday, everyone took out their old, used clothes, placed them in the middle, and began removing their current clothes. And let me tell you, I am still a wonderful reflection of Lexington, South Carolina. This mindset was to me so foreign, so stereotypical European, and so fascinating. Having told Norbert I would try to participate in most activities to make people comfortable, I obliged.
I stood there with jeans 10 sizes too large and a heavy polyester sweater. My shoes didn’t fit and I had to bind the waist of my pants with a scarf. I was still taking photos.
This is where we had arrived. These were our metaphorical, almost literal rags. They would keep our bodies warm for the next two days. Our next, ongoing task was to swim in the life of a homeless person. As a group of maybe 10 or 11 people we walked into the sunlight and beautiful open areas of Munich’s Ostbahnhof.
Peoples’ faces were, ask you might expect, not positive. That level of disapproval of my very being taught me very quickly: It’s difficult not to care what people think when absolutely everyone who sees you is thinking it. Ironically, I was the homeless guy with a really nice camera which seemed to confuse people.
Before we started anything, we needed to purchase food for everything at a few euro budget. We slumped around the local grocery stores for a while and came up with what admittedly seemed like a typical student’s diet: pasta, potatoes, and a few vegetables.
What we did next confused people even more: We each took several (forgot the amount) euro bills and were requested to distribute them to random people. We split into groups of three and there I was, homeless Hunter walking with two middle aged homeless women on the streets of Munich, Germany with a pocket full of money. I don’t remember the specific details, but I still remember the faces and emotions of the recipients. It was amazing to see a societal attitude in action.
Would you accept money from a homeless person? The overwhelming answer of the people was no. But even more beautifully, a few people accepted it and had a moment of equalization together. In those few seconds the boundaries and insecurities of class seemed to shrink.
If things haven’t seemed strange enough, it’s about to take another step. The last assignment of the day was begging for food. Long before the exercise the counselor explained that people don’t have to do it, and I was already on a thin fence about it. We split apart again, separating us into singles. I didn’t have the intention of fulfilling the task, so I walked off to a quiet square to do some detail photography. Breakfast was far behind as the sun went down and I was reasonably hungry. A friendly looking woman with a cake had been watching me take pictures for a while, so I cheated and introduced the real me. In exchange she fed me a piece of cake.
People returned slowly to the meeting point with interesting stories. A few returned with empty hands, one person was given a cheeseburger, the leader scored fruit from the local stands, and the youngest girl was actually invited to a party to eat for free and came back tipsy.
We finished discussing modern perceptions and made our way home for the night. Between the cake and the abundance of peaches we had, my stomach was satisfied as we prepared for sleep. We laid comforters over the couches and chairs of the dance studio and slept- but not before one of the greatest photographic moments of the seminar.
We filed into the high ceiling dance hall to an array of lights and music on the stereo. They started to dance, and I was inspired. We had each brought with us a flashlight for later plans, and at that point I asked people to take them out and dance with them. I could see the long exposure shot in my head. We literally danced the night away before bed.
I wish I could effectively convey to you how much I hate alarm clocks. The blaring loudness at 6 AM of the trademark music made for one of my most unpleasant awakenings. But the participants seemed more enduring than their photographer! They sprang into dance and song and I looked around confused at their enthusiasm. But later that day would begin the ‘riches.’ We crawled out of our dance studio and strolled around the block, absorbing the warm sunshine and fresh air.
The seminar leader explained to me that he must set up a surprise breakfast for the participants. Therefore I was to take everyone to a beautiful graffiti mural in the Kultfabrik and take portraits. That’s what I did while waiting for his go ahead. Portrait photography isn’t my highest preference, but I enjoyed looking back at the real faces of the participants afterwards.
He called us into the building and asked me to capture his furnishings in advance. In the mysterious room I found 4 tables arranged together with a lace covering and under-lighting, topped by a bountiful breakfast. I finished the ensemble by connecting my phone to the speakers to play fitting orchestral music.
The people once again filtered into this spacious auditorium, but this time with wonder on their faces. The transition into riches had made its first benchmark and it was visible in their expressions. Hungry eyes reflected colorful fruits and breads. We feasted.
Whatever lingering air left from the shocking rags experience was gone at that point. The participants and I knew we were about to have some fun in Austria. They collected their belongings and packed them into their cars.
Our first stop was Tegernsee, one of Bavaria’s beautiful mountainous lakes. We weren’t yet living lives of wealth, but at Tegernsee we were what I would call normal Germans again. We enjoyed a beer, walking along the shore, and I took photos of course.
Our stop was spontaneous and quick, so we were already in cars again. The driver typed Matzen castle into her GPS and we set off.
The passing mountains flaunted themselves on the changing landscapes as we entered Tirol. The views in Tirol are majestic no matter where you look. If you want to see European nature, you have to go to Tirol. But the silent, meditative ride was capped with the appearance of a castle on the horizon. This was the hotel where we would be staying, and also one of the most beautiful operational estates I have ever seen.
We stumbled out of the cars to stretch our legs, finally having arrived. A young man on a bright green John Deere tractor came driving up to us, and asked if he could take our bags. I was already thrown aback, as I had never stayed in a full-service hotel like that. Nonetheless, we loaded our heavy bags onto the wagon attached to his tractor and made our way up the driveway to the castle.
We were greeted by what seemed like an obvious history major. Her excitement over the relatively small-time local history of the mansion was fantastic. She brought us to the balcony where we were offered drinks while enjoying an incredible view.
My inner reaction to this new treatment had interesting affects on my body. I felt more self-worth. By saying I felt I had more self-worth, I mean I had more confidence. I believed my own ideas more readily and felt more attractive. I think those effects might have deep connection with why people gravitate toward power.
Anyhow, the next event happened: We met our freelance singer at a cozy restaurant on a lake, where we would enjoy a few bottles of wine. We first showered, changed, and were back into our original clothes. It was a quick drive down to the lake where we made ourselves comfortable.
We had been together for almost 2 days, and the previous events had rapidly constructed tight bonds between us. We were now friends standing on that shore, no matter the age. From 20 (I was the youngest) to 65+, we were all present. And as friends, we honestly enjoyed ourselves until going inside to eat. (If you’re wondering why I haven’t introduced them, I would like to protect everyone’s’ privacy. I’m not going to use their names or faces.)
For dinner there were large, hardy servings of Spätzle. As most traditional cuisine in this climate, it was delicious and filling to combat the calorie burn in the cold. At the end, I learned about “Verdauungsschnapps” by drinking it like an actual shot as everyone took their first sips. Yes, I still have cultural moments after years of being here.
Back at the castle, we gathered in the library for live music. The friendly girl who ate with us was going to play acoustic guitar and sing. If I’m honest, the performance was not bad but also unimpressive. The acoustic guitar and electronic keyboard were very out of place in this castle library from the 13th century. But I didn’t complain and continued creating images.
This afternoon had contrasted in every way with the afternoon before it. The massive perspective switch was, for me, an informative experiment. In another way, it also seemed like a fantastic vacation. Everyone went to bed relieved and exhausted. Except me- I stayed up to take advantage of this opportunity.
As tired as I might have been, it wasn’t going to stop me from documenting this beautiful piece of architecture. How many people get opportunities like this? I set in my headphones, and took a walk.
There is a visceral vibration when taking photographs. For hours I walked around the late-night grounds, to the highway and back. I painted the driveway and front wall with light from my cell phone flashlight. It was a rush of peaceful satisfaction.
With just a few hours left to sleep, I made my way to bed. Falling asleep in a bed made for a king is easier than you would think. And in what seemed like 30 minutes, the sun brought us from our beds for the morning. I slept for a while longer and came late to breakfast. The typical European breakfast: Fresh meats, fruits, and cereal. But for what we had planned, it was necessary to intake high calories: hiking a local river gorge.
The purpose of this exercise was intriguing. He brought everyone along this cliffside path, and asked them to percieve everything in its broader essence. I’ll explain with an example: When someone saw a person walking, they should accept it as people. If they see green, accept it as color, and so on. In this way, they could apparently practice not sweating the small things in life. From my perspective, repeating that approach in search of the broader essence of everything will turn you into a philosopher, perpetually bothered by ideas unmanifest in the natural world.
Our surroundings were at the very least calming. We walked to an opening in the rocky shoreline and meditated. As we stood there, I was again inspired by the surroundings. The meditation came to a close and I took portraits of everyone over the beautiful view of the river. With the majestic surroundings, each of them looked like they were from a magazine about sportsgear.
Up next we had planned a small reminder of our experience on the first day. The groceries we had purchased on our low budget in Munich would now be our lunch. And as a student, I can say our student ingredients were absolutely average. But I have no taste palette and ate three plates of pasta. I also tried real sauerkraut for the first time, a new dish I will forever avoid.
Now, and what I most dreaded before coming to the seminar, was the sauna. I’ll take a second to admit my ignorance of the European culture, but I had constructed exactly that stereotype in my head. Europeans all go to the sauna- and beaches for that matter- naked together. In some ways it’s true, but I was about to experience the stereotype myself as an American. At this point in my residence in Europe, though, little from the West shocks me.
We changed into our complementary robes and walked the spiral staircase to the top of the castle’s tower. Along the way, I could see the different ‘floors’ of wellness: Gym, singular sauna, water vapor sauna and lastly traditional sauna. On the last floor, a viewing platform surrounded with windows overlooking the Tiroler mountains, we stopped. We sat ourselves into lazyboys and layed on couches. We were given another assignment.
Each person took their place at the front of the room with a small prepared speech. They detailed their reasons on why they have not achieved what they want, and then recognized their true nature as excuses. I was a little confused by the victimizing nature of the exercise, so I went up front and explained how I am achieving what I want by being here. Besides, one can achieve his endless goals only at a pace that time and hard work permit.
It was time to go to the sauna. Sitting naked with others was, after I adjusted my perspective, freeing. While the conservative boy from South Carolina unconsciously developed an insecurity about nakedness, this particular comfort persuaded me otherwise. But cultural perspectives are different from physical sensations- and the sauna was scorching. Three times he gave a “Guss” which translates to ‘pour’ of water over the superheated rocks. With the temperatures and increasing humidity, a competition started to see who could stay in the longest. Believe it or not, I, the two younger people, and the seminar leader made it together before our schedule forced us to leave.
As the sun crossed under the horizon, it was time for our final dinner together. At this dinner, we were to wear our best afternoon clothes to surround ourselves as much as possible with luxury. I secretly love wearing nice clothes, so I threw on my suit for the opera. The others came equally swathed in sharp attire.
We took final group portraits in the historic dining hall of the castle and walked down to the castle’s restaurant. I lived in Munich for 1,5 years, and the atmosphere in this restaurant felt familiar. Crisply ironed dress shirts, slacks, blouses, evening dresses laughed casually and ate meals decorated by artists.
Our table was reserved in a smaller event room of the restaurant. I don’t remember how many courses we had, but each dish was more delicious than the last. The taste which shines brightest in my memory was the asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. And this entire time I was working on a bottle of chardonnay, so I was quite silly. It was a jolly few hours together, ending even with a dizzying kiss from the youngest girl.
What happened after dinner is embarrassing for a photographer, but this story is honest. The climax of the entire seminar was going to be the final firework show back in the gorge, and I had joined the leader to help set up. We drove a half an hour ahead of the others and came to a low point where he had laid out fireworks earlier. As he assembled letter templates, I set up for what I hoped would be my best shot yet.
The others arrived and I eagerly anticipated the unfolding of the scene. (I was unaware of exposure bracketing at this time) Using the brightness measurements of the dark night, I started capturing multi-second long exposures. The first few images were a huge waste of time and impossibly overexposed. I panicked and began shooting at random, shorter lengths. No matter what I did, the timing of the show and my pictures weren’t synchronized.
That was my result after hours of Photoshop retouching. I indeed learned the hard way about shooting fireworks! Working with the leader was great, however. He was enthused and understanding. Everyone packed the litter into the largest car, and we returned to Matzen.
In the small hours of the night before bed, I went to the counselor’s room to discuss the media I had so far. He was very satisfied with the result and asked me to create a small slideshow for departure. I agreed and began probing his own ideas about reality. The discussion went on for a very late hour, but revealed an interesting man. My previous suspicions of him cheating people of money went out the window. He had an interesting approach on the dualities of existence and connecting with others. One of my favorite lines: “Man muss einen an dem Bahnhof abholen, wo er ist.” ([to connect with others] you have to pick up people at the train station in which they are.)
The next morning would be short, but not without shattering another personal boundary. We enjoyed breakfast and collected ourselves in the largest room with the leader. We were about to perform group oil massage.
In that moment, slowly becoming grumpy and tired from the long hours, I declined to get massaged. But I consented to helping massage. And so it went: Everyone in the group encircled someone and massaged their disrobed bodies with hot oil. My maturity had been tested comprehensively during this seminar, and I failed this last task. I could only grin, looking around the room as I massaged the bare thigh of literally every member of the seminar. I had reached a point of hilarious cultural ridiculousness.
Luckily the laughter wouldn’t stop, because everyone wanted a photoshoot in the king-size bubble bath. I had no more lasting standards of privacy, so I followed them in disbelief to the bathroom. I created nude portraits of women and men ages 24-65+ in a bubble bath, and the internet will never see those priceless pictures.
Squeaky clean, everyone redressed themselves in robes to watch a slideshow back in the massive bedroom. I was doubtful that a spontaneous, unedited slideshow would be impressive, but the reactions were positively mixed. Everyone thanked me for being their photographer, and I gave them details on when the final images would be ready.
Toward lunch time we began saying our goodbyes and planning our trips to the train station. The entire experience wouldn’t settle in my mind for weeks, as there was so much to analyze. It was my greatest opportunity and one of my most intellectually productive experiences. I had ventured to the other sides of my preconceptions and seen the architecture. To this day I still see it as one of my most vibrant memories, and have an ongoing professional relationship with Norbert.