14 Days of Desert, Life and Bodypaint

Venturing Into the Unknown – Prelude

This section explains how I got on board of the project, since that’s of interest to some of you. If you want to get to the meat of the story, just skip down to “Taking the Trip of a Lifetime”.

In the fall of 2013, my second semester at UC Berkeley, I took a class in the ugliest building on campus – Wurster Hall, home to the Architecture and Urban Planning departments. Said class was a photography course; the first formal class that I ever took in my history of autodidactic development in photography. The professor of the class stood out as a total character among my other Berkeley professors – he called us “His babies”, made jokes about his French landsmen and had no inhibitions to tapping people on the shoulder for a job well done.

Contrary to most of Berkeley academia culture, he wasn’t as  interested in the sociopolitical context of photographic printing technologies from January to March of 1927, or the changes of French impressionistic photography of landscapes during the post-WW2 era in Sorbonne – but rather, the emotion of photographs, their sensuality, their meaning for the author and the audience, and our level of daring experimentation. He wasn’t interested in my Photoshop skills or the stories I wanted to tell in my photos, but he wanted to know why I chose specific colors or an overly busy background or why I didn’t make enough sketches in planning my photographs. The class was run entirely on criticism for each other’s work. You’d oftentimes get feedback like “What does this object in the picture mean, and why is it placed in this corner?” instead of “Your lighting is off and doesn’t flatter the face”. In short – this class was quite unusual to my usual work, as were the outcomes. As a means of illustrating this argument, here is a comparison of the photos I took before the class – after teaching myself photography since 2004 – and the photos I took for the class projects themselves:

My Previous Photo Work

My photographs during the self-taught phase between 2005-2007 (click for larger version)

My photographs during the self-taught phase between 2004-2010 (click for larger version)

My Photo Work During Jean-Paul Bourdier’s class

My photography exercises for Jean-Paul's class; usually I had little prep time but the difference in themes and content should be apparent (click for larger version)

My photography exercises for Jean-Paul’s class in 2013; usually I had little prep time but the difference in themes and content should be apparent (click for larger version)

A semester passed, until at the end of Spring 2014, I get a voicemail from an unknown number. “Hey Toby, it’s Jean-Paul …. I am doing a project again and wanted to see if you want to come along as a filmmaker…” This came probably in reply to me showing him my work and sending him my reel via email a while ago. I usually let my work speak for itself, and he seemed to have liked it.

After talking to him, the cards were on the table: It would be him, two girls as models, and myself. I would be a one-man film crew for two weeks in the middle of nowhere, shooting a video companion piece to his photography. If he was just about any photographer, I would have probably tried to negotiate spending only a part of the trip to come along – but Jean-Paul is not exactly any photographer to me, and his work with the elements of landscapes and painted bodies fascinated me from the moment he showed it to “his babies” in class. Talking about photography is inefficient, so here is what I am talking about:

Excerpts from "Bodyscapes" and "Leap into the Blue", the first and second photography book of Jean-Paul. He would bring them to class for inspiration and to show us his work.

Excerpts from “Bodyscapes” and “Leap into the Blue”, the first and second photography book of Jean-Paul. He would bring them to class for inspiration and to show us his work. Click on the Photo for a bigger resolution.

Here is more photos from each photo book.

I grew up in catholic Austria, where the naked body is only seen in specific social contexts – like Saunas, FKK (free body culture) beaches, at home, in intimate situations with a partner, in tasteful art, or in adult magazines and films. Now I live in North America, where the Christian-puritan roots have a much more tight grip on the naked body than I was used to in Europe – the shame and fetishization that comes with nakedness here in the US is sometimes quite shocking as a “liberal European”.

Anyway, I really welcomed the challenge of becoming more comfortable with the naked human body, and I found Jean-Paul’s work stunning – so I said yes.
He met with me and one of the girls – Alexa – shortly at my house to check if we would all get along. The vibe was right, so I signed some paperwork in case I’d die on the trip, and we were good to go. Two weeks of my precious summer were in his hands. I got multiple offers for paid work for that period of time (including one with some decent celebrity clout) but turned them down – loyalty to a confirmed project is key, and making art requires sacrifices.

One thing that was important to me was that I would know the primary purpose of my work on this trip, so I asked JP what he hoped that my work would do in the end. After some back and forth, it was established that my film should help him promote his next two books, giving his work exposure to new audiences. I settled on making an art film that would have around 4-5 minutes runtime and some virality potential for online distribution – and discarded the documentary option, since multiple other young filmmakers had already taken that route on JP’s work.

Taking the Trip of a Lifetime in the Desert Prince

Directly after finishing some shoots in LA and taking an overnight Express Bus, I arrive in Oakland at 6AM. Jean-Paul and Alexa pick me up in a car that seems like it’s seen its share of adventures. By the point we first grab some gas I notice a winch at the front bumper, the high-set chassis, the thick tires and it’s clear – this vehicle is ready to take us across the surface of a distant planet inhabited only by the curious species of Mormons. At JP’s house we take a quick stop because “We still have to load in the rest, my babies”. The trunk is packed to the brim, there’s a wild group of plastic drawers snaking through the center of the car from the back to the front seats – where else could you pack anything? Of course, the roof. JP opens the garage. “Take this, and this and this and ….” – twenty minutes later half the garage has been gutted and its organs are roasting in the Berkeley sun on the sidewalk. This amount of stuff – imagine a small family packing all their belongings – can NEVER fit on top of the car. The volume seems more than the car’s volume.

But, my Austrian skepticism is crushed by a strong sense of wonder when we haul everything on top in a logic that Jean-Paul seems to have developed over the last decade or so. And in some magical way, an hour later the car is nearly twice as tall as before, and has at least 1000 pounds of additional weight loaded on its top. With good music plugged into our system (do I need to spell Lana Del Rey for you?) we head for our 11-hour sitting marathon. Everything has a system – JP’s photo books are kept in a ceiling compartment so we can always indulge in the past work, there is inflatable headrests that work like a charm for sleeping in a sitting position, even a family of sunscreen tubes has its own drawer in the massive middle consule. 11 hours is a long time – so we all get to know a lot about each other. It’s quite magnificent to be stuck with a very small group in a totally contained, inescapable space – it allows you to get lost in conversation and pour out your soul with people who turn from strangers to good friends in the matter of a tank of gasoline being combusted at 60 miles per hour.

Film Equipment for a Film in the Salty Desert

My gear on this trip is delicately chosen and I spent the last few weeks not just assembling a package but also re-organizing my camera gear – what used to be stuffed into one padded suitcase was now split up between said suitcase and a tool box: In the suitcase, I would keep all of the delicate electronics, optics, sensitive mechanisms like the Follow Focus, cleaning equipment and the camera itself. In the toolbox, all the screws, rails, camera rigs, straps and mounts found their new home. For the project, I rented a Glidecam 4000 from my trusted vendor Federico; the steady movement was a must in my mind for this project, and any brushless motorized gimbal would probably have bitten the dust on a 1-man-film-crew shoot in a saline and dusty environment, being exposed to the forces of nature for way too long. I have my trusted Blackmagic Pocket as my only camera; the 7D is collecting dust on the shelf, R.I.P. DSLRs that can’t record Footage as good as my BMPCC [although I might be biased]. I will end up shooting the entire film on a 16mm Rokinon f2.0 and a 7.5mm Rokinon f1.8 , although I have a few more lenses in my pack. Next to the steadicam I plan to use an ultra-lightweight, hand-operated boom rig; the tiny BMPCC allows crazy DIY jib rigs a la Leonard Retel Helmrich (who I was inspired by in my Berkeley documentary film class, watching the impossible shots in Position Among the Stars).

 Arriving in the New World

Amazon Shipments in a tiny town - that's how you shop impossible-to-get items at the end of the world.

Amazon Shipments in a tiny town – that’s how you shop impossible-to-get items at the end of the world.

We – Jean-Paul, Alexa and myself – arrive at a Motel in a small city. I am always for transparency and disclosure, but in this case I can’t tell you which town this is: The tradition of not disclosing the location allows JP to photograph in his chosen places without interruption or distraction, and so the location remains a secret for the public and you, dear reader (with my journalistic apologies, but protection of the source is important). We meet the third girl and last member of our group – for this article I’ll call her Andrea – in front of the motel. Alexa and JP exchange a really excited long embrace with Andrea, which I find somewhat confusing. It seems like they survived a plane crash together or something. I don’t understand their excitement at this point, but soon I will learn what this trip means to each person that gets to experience it. And it’s not all that different from surviving a plane crash, actually.

We all share one room, which is totally unusual for my concept of how shoots and accommodation work, but I agreed to it in advance and don’t mind sharing the space. I realize that somehow all but one of my batteries got lost (?!), which marks the beginning of a shopping binge on Amazon throughout the first half of the trip, getting various necessary but unanticipated accessories shipped to the remote motel we are staying at. In this town they don’t even sell things as simple as workout weights, but I can get a specialized rain coat for my Blackmagic Pocket shipped in the mail within a day.

Shooting in Unusual Contexts and Conditions

Usually, a film set has a 1st Assistant Director who keeps track of time and creates the schedule; daylight shoots usually have a call time around 7-9am, and the film crew clockwork turns its gears with high precision and minimized entropy. This is a whole different game here, and a lot of the rules of “how a set works” become irrelevant for me on Day 1. We sleep until 9am, get a decent breakfast, put on a body armor made out of Sunscreen (SPF 65 for the face and neck, strong enough to survive a nuclear blast down the street), prepare and re-prepare ourselves and by the time we are out of the door it’s at least 11am. We go to a hardware store to buy additional behind-the-camera stuff and to the supermarket to buy healthy food for the day. By the time we arrive at our shooting location it’s about 1pm. This is one of the many salt flats of the United States. It sports a near-white surface; we had many theories as to how the surface was created, and most theories stayed un-refuted because we didn’t get much of a data connection in the middle of nowhere on our smart phone brain crutches.

The surface is so bright that my sunscreen-lubricated eyes have such trouble looking at it that I need to put on sunglasses – this never happened before in any other environment. As we get out, there is a strong wind, and my eyes refuse to open far enough for me to see anything. A few minutes later, Duct Tape on the bottom and the side of the glasses does the trick, and in turn the new configuration makes me look like a lunatic. We unload the Desert Prince; since JP insists on the freedom of improvising, we need to unload most of the top-heavy cargo and lay it out on a tarp. This means around 500 pounds of cargo getting down and back up the top of the car, every single day.

Pimped Sunglasses with Duct Tape to protect against the sun - and a successful start into the first day of shooting.

Pimped Sunglasses with Duct Tape to protect against the sun – and a successful start into the first day of shooting. Note the #cinebears T-shirt; I rotated wearing two identical copies through the entirety of the trip.

Despite its beauty and exorbitant monetary value during medieval times, this salt is mean and annoying; it sticks inches thick to your sole like gooey snow and leaves destructive residue once it dries – all over shoes, clothing and equipment. My early attempt to make the base camp a sock-only zone proves to be impossibly idealistic; you just need to enter and exit base camp way too often.

After we’re done with putting all the gear out and erecting the arbor – our only protection against the sunlight, apart from our Plutonium-enriched magic sunscreen pastes – it’s lunch time. A near-impossibility on a film set: Eat first, work later. Since we are only 4 people total, we all share a nice lunchtime conversation for around 90 minutes – way too generous for film set standards. Then it’s time to do the first setup of the day, and by the time it’s around 5pm, we are ready to shoot. A 1st AD would have dug themselves five times over into their grave after ripping out their vocal cords if that timing happened on a film set.

“Ready to Shoot” in this context means that all of us helped build the props or landscape of the various setups (usually arranged next to each other, so that the camera can’t see the neighboring sets but it contains our area of work a bit) and the girls painted their bodies with water-soluble paint that is specially made for bodypainting. One thing I didn’t realize about the nature of bodypainting is that the paint needs to be somewhat more flexible than the paint you’d apply to immovable objects (it doesn’t crack when the surface bends). This in turn gives you the creative possibilities of applying regular paint (like Tempera) to a body to get a cracked look once it dries (tempera is not “flexible”). And for the labor part of loading and unloading cargo as a closed group – that is applied feminism, or definitively against the conventions of a film set.

Talent (the actors) are usually kept in a perpetual state of relaxed Nirvana and actively discouraged from doing any work besides concentrating on their roles and having fun with each other – that way, the risk for accidents is minimized, and an actor with a broken ankle can easily stop or delay a production more than any crew member ever could. Also, the actor’s concentration on their role is essential; if the performances seem off and not 100% committed, it doesn’t matter how cool the production design and how pretty the cinematography are – the film as a whole will suck. In the case of photography, there’s more flexibility as the captured images only need to be arranged for the fraction of a second to work. Still – models usually never have to do physical crew work. In the case of our shoot, each person did about the same amount of labor, and I loved the idea of exercised equality. Despite that, I loved to be the go-to guy for heavy lifting or dangerous tasks, and had a great 14-day workout. My devotion to physical strain garnered me the nickname “Aaaaahnold”, and I was elected to throw our three 20-liter water tanks on top of the car every day. That’s my kind of meditation.

Protecting the Glidecam against the harsh, salty, dusty nature with a custom-made plastic enclosement that can be detached yet is nearly dust-proof. To help the lightweight BMPCC with inertia, I added a "few" washers with zip ties for a wiggle-free weight down, and a quick release plate to make operation quicker.

Protecting the Glidecam against the harsh, salty, dusty nature with a custom-made plastic enclosement that can be detached yet is nearly dust-proof. To help the lightweight BMPCC with inertia, I added a “few” washers with zip ties for a wiggle-free weight down, and a quick release plate to make operation quicker.

Alexa doing Yoga to warm up while JP is prepping the camera and I am protecting my Glidecam from the dust. On the right, one of the body painting patterns we did.

Alexa doing Yoga to warm up while JP is prepping the camera and I am protecting my Glidecam from the dust. On the right, one of the body painting patterns we did.

Meditation, Spirituality and Consciousness

Science rocks, and I look at the world through its lens. I doubt just about everything. I’m a skeptic since I’m 16.
We’re sitting in the car, driving onto the salt flats. Somehow the discussion topic turns to consciousness. JP asks me to locate my consciousness; I point at my head – “In there”. “But could it also be here?”, he says, pointing next to his shoulder. “Well… nobody knows, but when you look at current science that would be unlikely that it’s outside of the head…” “And it could also be there, right? And there?” –  JP points at the side of the car and the top of a far away mountain. I disagree. He gets worked up, passionate – then stops the car in the middle of the salt pan. “Take the toilet paper, Toby”. I grab the roll of toilet paper next to me and get out of the car, holding it up high into the air. That way, JP can see the wind direction and park the car in a way to protect our to-be base camp. For the next hour, we erect our tent and unload the gear, then plop down in our camping chairs. It’s the hottest and brightest now, time for lunch out of our camping cooler. Little crackers with yummy spread, avocado and salmon. More avocados. Tons of water, sometimes spiked with Electrolytes to support hydration. Slices of Turkey. Coconut juice. Lots of Coconut juice.

Coconut juice had become our religion. And Izzy, a soft drink lemonade. You get attached to foods when you spend extended periods of time in the desert.

"Leninade", a "Drink for the Comrades" in the most Republican state of the US; next to it the ultimate kick for the bourgeoisie with a hang to the proletariat: Rosemary Truffle flavored popcorn.

“Leninade”, a “Drink for the Comrades” in the most Republican state of the US; next to it the ultimate kick for the bourgeoisie with a hang to the proletariat: Rosemary Truffle flavored popcorn.

The conversation casually returns to the consciousness talk. JP, Alexa and Andrea seem to all be on a similar wavelength when it comes to the wonders of the universe. Sometimes unexplained appreciation for phenomena, sometimes quite spiritual interpretations. I like to argue with science or wherever science is at in its current findings. A lot of the discussion is about what it means to be human. What it means to be conscious, to have a self. How futile words are in expressing our experience of the universe. How it has to take decades to understand seemingly mundane yet beautiful things in the world. “Show me who you are without words”, says JP. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. Whatever I say, he just refutes it. Toby, you need to listen to the universe.  The girls nod their head, agreeing with Jean-Paul. Alexa recommends reading “The Nature of Personal Reality” by Jane Roberts. Everyone else nods, nearly in disbelief that I haven’t read the book yet.

The discussion ends up being two hours long, very passionate on many levels, touching many ways of thinking that I never considered before and teaches me two things:

  1. It is great to hang out with people that are skeptical of a seemingly complex, natural-science-reliant world view. It’s a great challenge for my own rhetorical skills, and it’s a good challenge to listen.
  2. My views might be stubborn and self-righteous. That although I celebrate skepticism, I might have lost of my mission to be curious, and that I didn’t open myself up enough to the world.

A day later the girls suggest that we should have an hour of time to ourselves during our break – so they can meditate and write journals. To me, this sounds again like something I wouldn’t do because it’s “new age stuff” and I don’t want to make time for it. During the rest of the trip, both of them spend some of their morning or lunch hours meditating and filling journals with personal thoughts – a practice that certainly lets you connect better to your feelings, wants and instincts. This daily organized introspection is something I never saw anyone do – before this trip.

You'd think the desert is just sunny - but wait until you get to see a thunderstorm form within 30 minutes above you, or see rain falling out from the sky like dust off a ceiling - breathtaking feeling.

You’d think the desert is just sunny – but wait until you get to see a thunderstorm form within 30 minutes above you, or see rain falling out from the sky like dust off a ceiling – breathtaking feeling.

Feedback and Sensuality

Driving down these roads with these kinds of views never gets old.

Driving down these roads with these kinds of views never gets old.

Apart from learning about myself, I make it a point to get into better editing habits. I compile dailies every day after our shoot (sometimes until 2 in the morning), compressing the 45-60 minutes of footage from that day into a 5 minute highlight reel. This proves extremely helpful to myself – now I don’t have to deal with tons of footage to look through when I get back to LA. Also, it fosters creative collaboration between Jean-Paul and myself since he has a way to track my work and give me feedback. While Alexa and Andrea are always stoked for the nightly dailies, Jean Paul offers strong criticism on Day 1: Not sensual enough, not intimate enough, no relationship to the horizontal or vertical, some sloppy compositions, no thinking about the frame.

I am glad that JP doesn’t try to shmooze around. There’s nothing more valuable an artist can get from another artist – especially one with so much more experience – than heartfelt constructive criticism.
“What do you mean with ‘not enough sensuality’?”, I ask; it’s quite confusing to me and is not a concept of aesthetics that I am aware of, really.
“Look how far you are away from the body. You look at it objectively, but you don’t feel it. You don’t make a connection. You observe, illustrate. It has an illustrative quality. Change the distance, get interested in being close, don’t be scared. Try to reach a painterly quality, a graphic quality.”
I have to digest that. I’m running a knockoff Steadicam on my own here, so any improvised movements from the models is hard to get close to without eventually crashing into one another. The focus has to stay constant throughout a smooth movement. The lens is relatively wide, so getting body details to take up the screen is hard. “I’ll try”. Jean-Paul nods and goes to bed.

The next day, I give it a try. Go closer in, be more playful and experimental, turn the Glidecam upside down, guess the focus. Go with the movements, fast, with some level of grace. Try to feel the movement of the body. Try to dance with the camera in response to the body dancing, trying to not construct but “feel” what the right kind of movements are. It feels good. Watching the footage at night, I realize: It works. It feels more sensual, more physical. Seeing the body more close-up makes the human more important and lets us connect better to the content. Throughout the two weeks I get nearly daily feedback and criticism from Jean-Paul. Lots of talks about sensuality. Even though I sometimes roll my eyes, some of his feedback really pushes me into places I wouldn’t have gone myself. Even if my pride is hurt with criticism, my artistic drive rises by the hour – pride is not a priority to me.

The probably most beautiful place I've ever seen: A sand stone cliff with a 300ft drop into an untouched, grey valley that stretches to the horizon. The rain just contributed to the impression.

The probably most beautiful place I’ve ever seen: A sand stone cliff with a 300ft drop into an untouched, grey valley that stretches to the horizon. The rain just contributed to the impression.

Yellow people sitting on a cliff and eating a banana for lunch - nothing unusual.

Yellow people sitting on a cliff and eating a banana for lunch – nothing unusual.

The Wonders of 4-Wheel-Drive

After one week, we are ready for the big move to an entirely new shooting location. The night before, Jean-Paul cleaned the salt off the car in a private driveway where he’s been cleaning it for years – he just asked the owners of the place if he could use their hose and space, and they said yes. We travel for a few hours across the countryside and arrive in a tiny town at the end of the world. It’s surrounded by flat lands and plateaus, dead trees and brush.

On one of our first days there, we go to some sand dunes. JP motions me to drive the car. “When you 4-wheel drive, you have to look out for sharp rocks. Train by avoiding all rocks that stick out, regardless if they are sharp. And you need to feel your back wheels, you need to know where they are just like you need to feel where the front wheels are.”, he explains. And he’s dead serious, making me aware of every single little rock I cross – imagine Mr. Miyagi from “Karate Kid”. I try my best, going down a red dirt path into the middle of nowhere – even more middle and nowhererest than the village we are staying at. There’s no signs, no street names – JP just tells me to turn onto various dirt roads; he’s been using them for more than a decade. We arrive at a serene set of sand dunes; time for a driver change in order to master the off-road dune driving challenge.

The Dunes you can see JP walking in and the Unicorn being trapped in - those we drove over, with daylight and without. It was insane.

The Dunes you can see JP walking in and the Unicorn being trapped in – those we drove over, with daylight and without. It was insane.

First, we have to walk into the dunes to determine the best way to go; we’ll then follow our footsteps with the car so we don’t have any unwelcome surprises like unannounced cliffs or overly steep dunes in our path. Everyone is drinking out of their portable, refillable bottles – dehydration is a serious issue here and can knock you out functionally for more than a day. Back to the car. This is it, a real driving challenge. I sit on the passenger seat, eagerly awaiting judgment day – it was already quite difficult to walk the dunes, now we are transporting a few tons of car and cargo up and down the dusty waves of the desert. JP shifts down to a low gear, then on a separate stick shift to an even lower gear – thanks to the differential. And holy hell – the car is like a tractor now, cruising over the sand dunes with slow force. Jean-Paul needs to hold constant pace, never slow down, otherwise we get stuck. On an especially steep dune, we do get stuck. The tires are buried deep, about 50% under the surface. “All right my babies, we need to dig now!”

Twenty minutes later, the car is free again. Only JP gets into the car, that way we three can push. And voila, with some plastic tracks under the tires and three fit 20-somethings pushing, the car moves… down the dune, backwards. JP speeds up, with his head sticking out the driver’s side window, driving backwards up another dune. I see him shift, the engine roars. Back up our dune, no success. Nearly gets stuck, back into reverse, up the other dune faster, shifts again, and up on the side of our dune, onto another dune. This is unknown territory, we didn’t walk there. From far, we finally see how insane this actually looks: A car with a relatively high center of gravity and a ludicrous amount of stuff on the top bouncing around on the dunes like a toy, spitting out sand in the back like a Jetski on the water, driving up the steep sides of dunes, making crazy fast turns – and success, somehow JP makes it to our final destination.

One of the dried out riverbeds I drove the Desert Prince through. On the trees, you can see debris stuck about 4 feet tall - that's from one of these flash floods.

One of the dried out riverbeds I drove the Desert Prince through. On the trees, you can see debris stuck about 4 feet tall – that’s from one of these flash floods.

After that shooting day, it’s dark out and our tracks have nearly disappeared because of high winds. It also rained a bit – not good conditions to start with, but we need to get out. JP flicks on the HID lights he had added to the car, with a custom switch next to the radio. WROARRRR up the desert dune, with the fog lights and HIDs only shining on the face of the dune we can see, but no way to see what’s behind it. He steers crazy fast on top of the dunes, tries to get up another one, we get stuck. He switches into reverse – now we’re in the car and know how insane this will look like from the outside – and drives backwards up the previous, extremely steep dune. Everyone’s quiet and panting, just JP seems to know what he is doing. Back into forward drive,  up a new dune that has some plants on it for better traction – now we’re on a completely different path. It’s just guessing now. The car shakes violently under the fast curves, sand is spewing next to our windows. Up and down, left and right, avoid a tree, avoid a cliff, wroom wroom – and somehow we make it out of here. We all clap in applause and pat JP for doing an awesome job.
“All right Jean-Paul, what do you want to listen to?” Andrea yells from the back seat, drowned out by the rumbling of the vehicle. “Vivaldi. You have Vivaldi, baby Andrea?” Sure we do. We can all use some Vivaldi now.

Inventiveness welcome: JP wearing a trashbag as a raincoat. DIY was everything, as it should be.

Inventiveness welcome: JP wearing a trashbag as a raincoat. DIY was everything, as it should be.

Wheeling on the Side of a Mountain

A few days later, I get to test my abilities of 4-wheel driving: In a canyon with dried out riverbeds, sand patches, small streams and a cliffside mountain trail that you can call a road if you’re really generous with your definition of the word. “You are driving too fast, my baby”. I hear this mantra for most of the time, only being switched to “Did you see this rock? Did you see it? It was sharp and could have cut your tire!”. Jean-Paul is teaching me driving just like back in driving school. I’ll put up with it, at least I get to drive through dried out riverbeds, alongside little streams and through multi-foot-deep ditches that require total care so you don’t bang the car on the bottom and cause structural damage. I drive rather slowly. At least I think so.
Then up the mountain road – switching to a lower gear, and starting an ascent that lasts 45 minutes. Giant rocks left and right and in the middle of the road, tightly spaced 180-degree curves that have a diagonal ditch in their middle, dried out streams that cross our path and have caused deep holes. On our left, large rock faces and sharp corners, on our right a 200-foot drop down some large rock formations. The girls suggest that Jean-Paul should drive – but the Frenchman has trust in me, and I have everyone’s lives in my hands. And we get to the top without a scratch – trusting Aaaahnold proved to be a good idea.

Once the day is over, we need to get back down. The only Burger shop in town closes in an hour, so if we can get there fast enough, we’ll have dinner; otherwise leftovers are waiting for us. JP takes the wheel and drives down the cliff path I took 45 minutes for in around 20 – without any scratches. “I know this road, that’s the difference, Toby.” – makes sense.
“JP, what music do you want? Vivaldi?” “Mh, for this road, no – do you have Eminem?” Sure we do, Eminem for the rough trip downhill.

The "road", a breakneck path along the side of a mountain. Up with "The OC" soundtrack, down with Eminem and HIDs.

The “road”, a breakneck path along the side of a mountain. Up with “The OC” soundtrack, down with Eminem and HIDs.

Arriving on the bottom, we go back through the dried out riverbeds. But not with the 15mph I was driving – with 40mph. I look over to my left. Outside, bushes and trees and rock faces are zooming by, everything is vibrating violently, shaking in the middle console. The only stoic thing in the whole picture is Jean-Paul, soon turning 64 years old, with no hair on the top of his head and bright gray hair flying from the sides of his skull, rimless glasses and a concentrated look on his face. His arms rotate around like mad – to drive through a patch of sand, avoiding a buildup of sand in front of the wheels by turning them slightly but hastily back and forth. We drive through a little creek, water is gushing roof-high off the sides of our car. JP laughs – he always hits this spot of water on purpose -, us passengers scream of joy. In the background, Eminem is blasting from the speakers as we cut through the warm summer night. Looking at JP’s age, actions and taste in music all at the same time is just absurd. This is what an adventure feels like, and if I’m that physically fit and nuts by the time I turns 64, I’ll be more than happy.

It took me an entire day to get this 10-year-unused motorized gas scooter to work - and it was worth it to have a true Independence Day picture with the stereotypical flying flag.

It took me an entire day to get this 10-year-unused motorized gas scooter to work – and it was worth it to have a true Independence Day picture with the stereotypical flying flag.

Our biggest project on the trip: Painting a picasso against a rock face. Took one and a half days.

Our biggest project on the trip: Painting a picasso against a rock face. Took one and a half days.

The Epicness of landscapes we got to see on this trip were unprecedented.

The Epicness of landscapes we got to see on this trip were unprecedented.

Connecting With My Own Nakedness

A Serene Sunset.

A Serene Sunset with painted bodies watching.

In most Western cultures, the naked body is something very private, very vulnerable. A vulnerability that no one wants to expose themselves to except for intimacy and sexuality. It probably all roots from the Abrahamic Religions and the shame of being naked. Then, there are the social movements against this over-thinking of the naked form, the stigmatization of the nude human by religions and mass culture. Hippies would celebrate the naked body in the United States while we had and still have our “Free Body Culture” beaches in Europe, or the co-ed nude saunas in just about any European spa. Nudity is never required in these spaces, rather it is allowed and seen as normal. I personally could never warm up to these nude recreation ideas despite my parents teaching me quite a liberal stance on the naked body. Maybe it was insecurity, maybe a lack of experience, I don’t know.

Hanging out with Jean-Paul, Alexa and Andrea, and being surrounded by not just their comfort with nudity but also their ideas about art, life, consciousness and human nature really gave me an itch on my own closed-mindedness which I previously perceived as “totally liberal anyway”. I knew that I had some sort of blockage to overcome, and this was certainly the right opportunity to do so. Filming naked people is easy, it takes very little bravery on your part – just respect and professionalism. Being naked yourself is a whole other level of bravery, self-comfort, and relaxation of fears.

About 8 days into our trip, we are eating burgers for dinner outside at the Motel in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I turn to JP, having thought about this at length:
“If you guys are cool with it, I’d want to be in one of the photographs too. I saw a few sketches that had three people in them, so…”
“That is fantastic! Excellent Toby, then we can have some male form in there, I already had a few ideas. But – are you willing to shave?”
“Uhm … sure, yes, no problem.”
Full-Body shave. Never did that. I remember hearing a guy say once “The day Hell freezes, I’ll shave my private parts”. Now, this was going to be a big challenge of body comfort and body image. But I feel an urge to experience it and overcome my fear of the unknown, so I go ahead and shave, including the eleven hairs on my chest I was so proud of having.
On our last day of the trip, we have an image planned that includes three bodies. JP’s temper goes south when he sees that my arms and legs are not shaved – but before more trouble arises, the girls offer their help and shave my legs while I shave my arms. It’s an utterly hilarious experience, and definitively another step up the ladder of being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

We all get dirty every day - on this particular moment, Jean-Paul covered himself in mud to fend off a hundred nagging flies around us.

We all get dirty every day – on this particular moment, Jean-Paul covered himself in mud to fend off a battalion of nagging flies.

“We were gonna give you a present for all the heavy lifting you did Toby”, they say, “but this here is definitively present enough.” – motioning to the disgusting water filled with hair and shaving cream. When I started this trip, I would have never in my mind imagined holding a “Venus” razor in my hand and shaving my arms, sending them back to the state they were in when I was a boy. There’s something very strange about getting rid of the markers that developed during puberty. It probably won’t grow back thicker and darker though, that’s just an illusion.  Half an hour later, the work is done, at least “good enough”. I finally understand how much work it is for girls to shave arms and legs on a constant basis, despite them not having to start out with a 25-year old forest on their limbs. In the context of grooming, thoughts about feminism and body image rush through my head, but once again – as it happens to me a lot in Berkeley – I am not yet able to marry these new ideas of beauty and body perception to the ideas I grew up and developed my perception of sexuality with.

My paint color is silver, and although there is a great deal of “bodily liberation” in the shoot, everyone takes their private corners for painting their bodies, with the other people respectfully turning away their looks. This allows one to not truly show the naked body, but rather, to take off the clothes in private, put on the layer of body paint and reappear to the group as a transformed shape – “dressed up in paint” if you will. I now experience firsthand what that means: your veins and other skin details disappear, and all that’s left is a pretty smooth, flat representation of your body’s geometrical shape. Still, other than the paint and some flip-flops to protect against the hot ground, you’re naked in the middle of an endless desert. It’s an amazing feeling to intellectually and emotionally perceive, and it’s absolutely liberating – shaking off the socially constructed shame of nakedness to a good degree.

The photography part itself is fun to me; I’ve directed so many humans from behind the camera in the last ten years that it’s insightful to experiment in front of it now and feel what an on-camera subject feels. How can you best show the expression/pose/shape/emotion to the camera? Which angle is the most interesting? What will this or this pose say? How does it look in motion as compared to a still image? Tons of thoughts rush through my head. We shoot on a dried-out pond with deep cracks; the dirt being somewhat soft. “I could jump and land flat on the ground”, I suggest to JP. “Sure, try it!”
So much fun; flying, falling and being careful to not hurt myself too much, in this serene place – a really unique way to experience what it means to be alive and exist only within the boundaries of gravity.

After the photo part of the shoot, I still need to film the scene. There isn’t enough time to wash off and put on clothes, so I just throw a towel over my chest and put on the Glidecam vest.
“Flying Steadicam while naked.” – check that off on the bucket list. It’s probably the craziest thing I’ve done on a film set so far. It’s another experience to see life from more angles and understand more of the human condition. Being naked becomes pretty normal to you after a while that you’re running around nude in a sparkly silver paint, pulling focus with silver fingers and making a water-soluble mess on your gear.

Above a part of the photo I was in, below the shooting for the film only minutes later, wearing a towel and a Glidecam vest - this was a very unexpected yet wonderfully free conclusion of the trip for me.

Above: a part of the photo I was in. Below: the shooting for the film only minutes later, wearing a towel and a Glidecam vest – this was an unexpected yet wonderfully freeing conclusion of the trip for me.

Influences and Screenshots of “JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies”

This was quite an intense shoot. As you could read above, I was heavily influenced by the freedom of thought and expression on the shoot, and I highly recommend every person to expose themselves to that level of freedom in a social environment that is trusting, safe and supportive. It really opens you up to so many new ways to look at life, to so many things you can see through a lens or stage in front of it. It allowed me to understand the connection of the people in front and behind the lens better. It allowed me to realize what great influence framing has on sensuality or intimacy of the viewer with the subject. It allowed me to reflect on the fashion shoots I did recently (an article is in the making) and re-think about the role a model has in a production.

It was a welcomed physical challenge, both behind the wheel and coping with environments and cargo outside of the Desert Prince. It was a chance to depart from the “totally liberal” idea of the naked body and re-learn a level of extra-societal comfort with it. It was an exercise in being human, without a doubt, and it created some really meaningful conversations and friendships. Look forward to the final product (Working Title: “JP Bourdier – Desert Bodies“) that hopefully transports a lot of what I learned (screenshots below), and check out Jean-Paul’s work.

Most of all, this trip was unforgettable, a permanent imprint in my mental and emotional landscape – and by far the best way I could have spent these two weeks of Summer 2014.

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film "JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies"

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film “JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies”

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film "JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies"

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film “JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies”

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film "JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies"

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film “JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies”

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film "JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies"

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film “JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies”

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film "JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies"

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film “JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies”

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film "JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies"

Screenshot from my work-in-progress film “JP Bourdier: Desert Bodies”