Circle of Life

Image Drew Doggett



Where were you born and where are you based now?
Born in Maine, now based in New York City.

Can you tell us a little about Jungles In Paris which you co-founded with your brother, Oliver, in 2013 –what’s the purpose and philosophy behind the project?
We wanted to show people a layer of the world that is often overlooked. In academic terms, our focus is largely geography and anthropology. In more emotional terms, it’s things that feel authentic and rooted. We tell stories about longstanding cultural traditions, ways of living that are in harmony with nature, remarkable wild places and animal species. 

My brother was running a commercial production company when we founded Jungles, and I was writing mostly for glossy magazines. We weren’t getting outdoors as much as we had when we were kids in Maine. On a more philosophical level I think we started to realise that a lot of modern values don’t really speak to us that much. So we wanted to direct more of our mental efforts, our attention, towards things that did. We really wanted to explore the sense of place, which is underrated in our hyper-connected global present. And having done a lot of work that was commercial and disposable, we wanted to show respect for the crafts of filmmaking, writing, and photography. So we emphasise quality over quantity– I think this goes against the grain of a lot of media these days, including independent and especially online media. But it’s the only way we could do Jungles and be happy with it.

It’s a quirky name –what’s the story?
We get asked this a lot! It speaks to the idea of a great, wild, untamed, unknown world– and having an encounter with this world within a curated context. It’s also a reference to the painter Henri Rousseau, and how he was able to create a sense of enchantment around foreign places, despite never having left France.

The authenticity behind your storytelling really resonates through the screen: is a feeling of real connection something we’ve lost in the 21st century?
It’s nice to hear that! I do think that sense of disconnection is a symptom of 21st century existence. It’s not just that so much of our lives is mediated– if that were the beginning and end of it, then creating more media would definitely not be the solution! But I think our brains are spinning too fast for their own good, on a cultural level. The pace of change, the endless buffet of information and entertainment options, the assumption that there is an audience out there weighing in on every passing thing we see, hear, and feel– all these elements of digital life have fundamentally altered the way many of us exist on this planet. One of the most detrimental of these changes has been on our ability to concentrate, focus, enter the flow of the moment, whatever you want to call it. Meanwhile, global cultures are becoming more homogenous. All these traditions that might help us see our way out of this downward spiral are disappearing in a frenzy of development, Westernisation, and so on.

Can you talk us through what it means to you to record subject matter that may soon be extinct? Do you ever feel like you’re running out of time?
There is some sense of urgency. I feel like ecologically, we are running out of time as a species to make things right, to forestall catastrophe. And assuming things keep going the way they are– growth over sustainability, ‘capabilities’ over wisdom, etc.– then this chapter of global civilisation will not end well. With regard to extinction, I don’t think I have as keen or as personal a sense of what it means as perhaps an anthropologist or a biologist would. Or, of course, as someone whose own culture is facing it. 

Which story has really struck a personal chord with you and stuck with you over the years?
As editor I am involved in all the stories we publish, but to varying degrees. So when a story strikes a chord with me it’s often because I was more involved in its production – thinking about what to focus on and what the images might look like; meeting the people we filmed; worried about how it would end up, and so on. In this regard our short documentary about Vienna coffeehouses has stuck with me.  I just love the fact that these places have stayed essentially the same over the years. They are living relics, windows into the past. They’re for conviviality or solitude. My impression is that the Viennese have associated the kaffeehaus with their daily routines more than other cultures have. And because these spaces are unfamiliar,(at least to a non-Austrian), they provoke us into thinking about how we might live our own lives differently. 

The documentary-style stories you tell through photography and film are rooted in tradition yet have a timeless, ethereal nature to them. How is that feeling created?
The obvious answer is that we don’t have to force it– the subjects we choose are things that have endured for many years, often in the same place. I suppose we also try to tap into a slower rhythm. To an extent we reject the aesthetics of advertising and social media. I think it’s important to bring the values of art into the documenting process. Succeed at this and you make things feel more, well, everything: timeless, essential, beautiful, inspiring, worth saving, and so on.

What is it about the natural world and traditional cultures which inspires you to curate them?
For me, nature is at the root of everything. And yet I struggle to be in communion with it. Cultures that interact more directly with nature help direct lost souls like me to the most important things in life. “Curate”is a funny term. It can suggest a kind of disinterest from deeper meaning, and a prioritisation of taste over the everything else. But maybe this is because my background is as a writer, not in visual arts. For me the process is more about researching and presenting, storytelling and editing. And I suppose there’s an educational element as well.

How do you go about deciding on your subject matter?
My brother and I keep a running list of interesting topics and things to look into. Of course we can’t afford to fly all over the world so we’re usually responding to opportunities to travel somewhere, to work with a filmmaker who’s headed somewhere, or to use images that a photographer already has in his/her portfolio. Commissioning the writing is always the last step. We need to have the visuals first.

What has surprised you most about the Jungles in Paris project and what’s been the most rewarding aspect?
The extent to which a part-time project has ended up shaping my life. When we started Jungles in 2013 I saw it as an extension to my sense of self as a travel writer, one who likes old things but also likes some of the trendy stuff that’s out there today. I didn’t realise it would guide me down this rabbit hole of mythology, anthropology, slow living, Eastern religions, etc. – to think well beyond the present commercial and cultural context. I have to credit my brother with pushing me this direction too.

What’s your own personal favourite travel destination?
I love mountains. The best trip I’ve taken was a five-day trek up a protected Himalayan valley in Nepal.

Top tip for visiting New York?
Ask a local for directions! The New Yorker’s reputation for rudeness is overstated.

Finally, can you provide us with an inspirational quote or life/travel experience, which keeps your dream alive?
“What is important is anyone’s coming awake and discovering a place, finding in full orbit a spinning globe one can leap over, catch, and jump on. What is important is the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch– with an electric hiss and cry– this speckled mineral sphere, our present world.”(Annie Dillard)