Internationally renowned Royal Photographer Joth Shakerley has travelled to the secret world of Rainbow Gatherings to photograph elusive moments of loving human connection. And now he's set to release 36 years' worth of images in a new self-published book.
It's been 50 years since the first Rainbow Gathering took place in Colorado. Since then, the notoriously private meetups have swelled in number and attracted people from all over the world to indulge in intimate human connections.
To coincide with this half-centennial, photographer Joth Shakerley has released a self-published book that documents the beautiful, tender moments of real human connection at Rainbow Gatherings. Shot in atmospheric black and white, the collection of hand-printed photos is a rare glimpse into these magical utopias and healing spaces.
Titled RAINBOW, the book is currently open for backers on Kickstarter. Decades in the making, it represents 36 years of hard work as Joth carefully integrated himself into the camera-adverse gatherings to snap moments that come and go in a flash. Not only that, but Joth has also gone to great effort to ensure that everyone presented in the book has given their explicit permission to be captured on film.
Having first discovered Rainbow Gatherings at the age of 20 while visiting the Hari Krishna temple in Los Angeles with friends, Joth was immediately won over by the energy of these uninhibited congregations. "It completely changed my life," he reveals. "It was just like wow, this is an extraordinary kind of utopia in the middle of nature where there are no rules.
"As you arrive, you climb up this hill trail and are greeted with 'welcome home welcome home', and you get massive hugs from everyone. Every Rainbow Gathering, all through the hills, you hear people calling 'we love you all, welcome home'. And you're very much welcome, so everyone who comes here is welcomed with love and hugs."
Welcoming though they may be to people, Rainbow Gatherings are notoriously private, meaning that on most occasions, photography is forbidden. Joth managed to work around this, though, by getting an explicit invitation to take a picture from his subjects. It also helped that, to begin with, his photographs were taken on FM, manual cameras instead of digital models, which have the potential to share and reproduce images much more easily.
"It's all about respecting each other," Joth explains. "So the rules on photography, from the very first gathering, were that if you could see someone's face, you need to ask their permission. Otherwise, it was okay.
"The truth is, I don't go as a photographer. I go very much for me," Joth adds. "And I go first of all to heal, be free, and be in nature. And secondly, as a photographer, I think if I went as a journalist, I know that I would get nothing. I didn't want to go and tell the story. The photos that I've taken are almost like individual shared moments where I know that I've got consent, where I know that I'm with friends and that it's okay to be completely present in the moment and conscious."
This sensitivity and awareness have clearly paid off because people's reaction to the photos has been universally lovely. People have even found themselves in photographs shared years later via Joth's Instagram account and got in touch to share their positive feedback.
"There's a lovely story of one lovely couple I photographed in Croatia," says Joth. "I bumped into her three years later, and she explained that she and her boyfriend had broken up. But when I approached her via Instagram to use the picture, she explained to me that after she saw the love they had for each other in the photo, they got back together. They've got two small children now.
"That's nothing to do with me, though. That's just synchronicity. And I was lucky that I found her and lucky that I actually had a picture. So yes, sometimes there are some lovely things that happen as a result of those moments being captured."
As for the decision to shoot in black and white over the 36 years, rather than changing the look of the photos to reflect the advances in camera technology, Joth says it was a deliberate choice that tied the images together.
"What I love about black and white shoots is that they become a bit timeless," he explains. "When you photograph Rainbow gatherings, you imagine that everyone is wearing colourful clothes. But in black and white, you can imagine that people from the 1970s are in the present day. Colour always dictates the history of the time we're in. Because you can't see the colours, no one really knows when or where these photographs come from."
The layout of the book also helps to bring the generations of photos together and presents them in the best light possible. " I put very little text in the book," says Joth. "There's a little bit with all the dates, which I put in the back of the book, but I wanted each picture to kind of stand out on its own and just be a reminder that they belong to all of us and show what we have within ourselves."
Speaking of why now is the right time to release the photos in book form, Joth adds that there's more to it than the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary of the first Rainbow Gathering. "I feel that people are kind of waking up, and I feel that it's a really fun time to be alive," he says. " I just think I feel great shifts are happening all over the planet."
Fuelled by the pandemic, Joth claims that this awakening is the result of a societal pause. "I think it's a really important time to bring this book out because it's spreading a message of mindfulness and healing. I'm hoping that the images will remind people to be kind to themselves and kind to others. And maybe it will bring more playfulness into our lives."
RAINBOW is currently open for backing on Kickstarter. You can get involved and secure your copy by pledging here.
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