Last June, Eli Durst made his debut on It’s Nice That with Pinnacle Reality – a colour-rich series that delved into the stereotypes often associated with suburban America. This month, the Austin-based photographer returns with a new project, titled The Community, published by Morel.
Pivoting into the realms of black and white photography, the series sees Eli move from a large-format analogue camera and an abundance of natural light into the digital realms of flashed darkness. For The Community, Eli explains how he launched the series in 2015 during a particularly harsh winter in Connecticut, where he was currently living at the time. “I was struggling to find people to photograph,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I knew I needed to move inside to find people and things that interested me. As I moved indoors, I had to change my approach to picture-making.”
Drawn in by the activities taking place in American church basements, Eli’s latest endeavour embodies a fascinating paradox: “[it’s] a quintessentially American space that is completely generic but also deeply charged as a centre of ideological production,” he says. Eli started to capture these community spaces where groups and clubs would regularly meet. “I quickly realised I was less interested in a documentary-style project and I became more interested in trying to capture strange, ambiguous moments in which one activity can bleed into another. What are all these people looking for and how are they trying to find the answers?”
Boy Scouts, New Age spiritual classes, church services, corporate retreats, team building exercises and community theatre troupes – the American church basement has it all and what goes on within is somewhat of an ambiguous mystery. “Whether it’s a Boy Scout learning to build a fire, a company looking to increase productivity, or a group of friends looking for spiritual answers that have eluded them, I think what unifies the people in the images is that they’re looking for some form of self-improvement or realisation; a sense of fulfilment in community.”
One image sees Eli capture a rare (and strange) moment of bread worship – hands, marked with the owner’s name, reaching out in unity towards the loaf with a cross necklace placed on top. A further picture sees a group dancing, another smashing something on the ground, and another laying on the floor like happy sardines. There’s also the addition of parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs and a cat – there really is no limit to the goings on in this space.
What’s interesting is that many of these groups didn’t want to be photographed. “I totally understand why,” says Eli, “especially spiritual groups or activities that require serious vulnerability.” Of course making sure that nobody felt uncomfortable during the process, he would sometimes attend a service or a meeting with some of the groups, so that he could present his work and members could decide if they wanted to participate. “I never experienced any controversies. One time, I drove for an hour to photograph a chess club – I set up all my equipment and took about two shots before I was told that I was distracting the players and they asked me to leave,” he says.
Over the course of three years since The Community began, Eli felt like there was much to say and many more groups to discover. As with any project, there are going to be some hurdles. “I think one challenge was overcoming some of my worse impulses, namely making photographs that fit too comfortably into an idiosyncratic, small-town America way of seeing.” He concludes: “I think connecting with the cadre of New Age spiritual groups in Connecticut really helped the project come into its own by clarifying what was actually at stake for some of these participants: a real sense of purpose.”