For Megan Cullen, it’s in her families blood

The Adventure Handbook had the immense pleasure of chatting to Megan Cullen, Australian photographer and filmmaker, about her trip to New Mexico in 2013. A veritable Mecca for alternative lifestyle practitioners and communities, she captures the region in its raw, natural state of being entirely extra-ordinary.

What kick-started a love of photography for you? From as far back as I can remember I was always scribbling or making up stories or acting or doing something creative so it’s not so surprising that I found myself drawn towards photography. I took my first photographs at age twelve in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My Mum took my brother and I there as she is fascinated by Native American culture. While she was exploring her own interests (including the exquisite silver jewellery – she has bangles all up her arms!) I was drawn to the landscape and the desolate wide-open spaces. I wasn’t thinking seriously about photography in that moment, I was just a kid, but I did know I wanted to capture the feeling I was experiencing somehow.

I got to go to photography class while the others sweated it out at netball. I was pretty happy with that arrangement.

Towards the end of high school (well my whole life really!) it was blatantly obvious that I was hopeless at sport. My teachers informed me that they knew I wasn’t interested in it and was one of the few people who didn’t make any of the teams anyway, so I had the option of being a reserve player or going to an arts academy where I could choose to do painting, drawing or photography. I couldn’t believe that my lack of athleticism was finally paying off! I got to go to photography class while the others sweated it out at netball. I was pretty happy with that arrangement. I began to love photography at these classes but I still wasn’t thinking about it seriously as a career. I had been doing acting since about age ten and that’s what I thought I was always going to do. Recently, I found an old diary of mine from high school that says, “by the time I’m 18, I want to be living in Hollywood and to have won an Oscar”. Ha! That didn’t quite happen! In my final year of school, my acting teacher said something to me that I thought was out of line, so my fiery teenage Aries side came out and I told my teacher I wasn’t going to do acting anymore. He looked at me as if I was nuts and stressed to me that I had worked my whole life towards the acting “dream”. He went on to ask me about what exactly it was I thought I was going to do instead. I pretty much made up on the spot that I was going to do photography. And that was that. Sometimes my dramatic side can get me into trouble but in this instance it pushed me in the direction I was meant to go.
How has travel affected your interests and philosophy? Travel is in my family’s blood and so my brother and I were very fortunate to have been exposed to different ways of life from a young age. Mum was a teacher and took us on an exchange to this tiny town called Invermere, in the Rocky Mountains in Canada for a year and a half when I was eight years old. I would say that experience shaped who I am fundamentally as a person. It awakened my curiosity and desire to explore. Coming from the ‘burbs in Brisbane to suddenly finding yourself needing to know what to do if a grizzly bear was hurtling towards you was wondrous! Kids at my Canadian school wanted to hear my accent and know all about my life and my country. I in turn wanted to know all about them and what words like “bangs” and “neato” meant and why they said “eh” all the time (they seriously did!). It was a great way to learn. When we returned to Australia I don’t think I ever felt settled back into my suburban existence. I had been given a taste, even just small one, of what else was out there. In grade eleven when the opportunity arose to do a school exchange to Sicily, Italy, I jumped at it. That was another life changing experience. Sicily is like one big foreign film set. It was achingly beautiful and absolutely spurred on my interest in photography. I shot roll upon roll of black and white film that trip, of nights out with friends, old men arguing in the streets, opulent architecture, cute boys on their Vespas. It was all incredibly romantic. Maybe all the travel I have done has led me to have a fairly romantic view on life. I just see it all as one big adventure after the next. Those close to me know I could do with being a little (or a lot) more pragmatic and practical but that’s just not in my nature. I just like to throw myself into things and see what happens. Whatever the outcome, I’m always better for it in the end.

When we returned to Australia I don’t think I ever felt settled back into my suburban existence. I had been given a taste, even just small one, of what else was out there.

Why did you go back to New Mexico? What are you impressions of it? There were eighteen years between my first and second trip to New Mexico so I guess that demonstrates how profound the impression it left upon me was. It was always in the back of my mind. When I was living in Berlin I started writing a film that was set in New Mexico but my idea of the place was limited to some faded images in my mind and a couple of snaps from that initial trip. I needed to go back to location scout and explore the area I remembered so vividly as child. New Mexico is called ‘The Land of Enchantment’ and you come understand this when you are there. There is some sort of magical and mysterious aura about the place. From the Native American folklore, to the people practicing radically alternative ways of living, to the bizarre Roswell cover up, to the space-training stations in the deserts. There is something very special going on there – it’s hard to pinpoint but leaves you with the feeling that something much bigger than ourselves is at work.
What draws you to photograph what you do, visually or otherwise?  My photographs are physical manifestations of my emotions and feelings. As human beings I think we crave deeply profound experiences and I am definitely no different. I actively seek out people and environments that stir my emotional core. My curiosity is amplified by the sparks of intrigue that occur within moments of banality, the everyday or the mundane. How we attribute meaning to seemingly meaningless circumstances only fuels my quest to understand why we arrange ourselves as we do. In this lifetime I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand what I am seeking, but I am definitely enjoying the ride and take what I can from each new experience. During the trip to New Mexico, you met with a number of alternative practitioners and theologians, Dr Rick Strassman for one. Are you open to these kinds of practices and theories?  I am absolutely open to these practices and theories. I want to learn as much as possible from as many people as I can – whether it’s something I see my own personal beliefs aligning with or not.

As human beings I think we crave deeply profound experiences and I am definitely no different. I actively seek out people and environments that stir my emotional core.

How much of you is purely witness as a photographer, or do you purposefully get involved in the lifestyle? I would say that I come first as a human being with an interest to learn and second as a photographer. If the opportunity arises where I can become involved in parts of the lifestyle or practices associated with these communities, and if it feels right and is respectful to those involved, then I am open to exploring these also. Which experiences stayed with you the most from this trip? There were so many. It really was the trip of a lifetime for me – all the people I met, all the things I was able to see. One highlight was watching the sunset over White Sands desert. As the sun began to lower behind the mountains, my friend Kloi and I were the only ones left out there – just us and pure white sand dunes as far as the eye could see. We went from doing crazy rave moves to sitting in awe-inspiring silence from one moment to the next. The feeling of being so small in the scheme of things was very apparent and it rippled waves of emotion through us.
Another fascinating experience was meeting Dr. Rick Strassman, the man behind the book ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule’. I think he is a visionary and I wish studies like his were more widely accepted and encouraged. Rick is an intimidatingly intelligent man and while we did cover some very existential topics, we also bonded over our love for our cats. After our meeting, I sent him a big thank you email and he sent me back a YouTube video of a Russian cat circus. Perfect!
I spotted Christopher the Vagabond Psychic’s ad in the local newspaper in a town that is incredibly called, Truth or Consequences. He looked like Walter out of The Big Lebowski and in the ad he was sitting at a table covered in tie-dyed fabric with a crystal ball on it, holding his cat who I later learned was called Big Daddy. I had to meet him! He was a very calm man and told me he had travelled far and wide but loved his plot in this tiny caravan park in the desert. He joked that New Mexico isn’t the land of Enchantment but rather the land of Entrapment! Once you visit you’ll either stay or just keep coming back. Not a psychic prediction but a very valid point no less. I also met with a Native American healer, a woman who heals through light and a Mexican family who lived outside Roswell and believed deeply in the paranormal. I was given some pretty profound insights by all of these people but some of these stories I prefer to keep between myself and those who shared them with me. Hopefully you can get some sort of feeling about what I experienced through my images.
The people you met live and work in fascinating contexts. Since there is a performative aspect to rituals like healing and psychic readings, how those involved interact with the camera and being photographed? I’m always amazed at how natural they are in front of the camera – as if it isn’t there at all. It’s a process to build up the trust to be allowed to photograph people in their most intimate moments, however I guess they are dealing with fairly big life themes and don’t really have the energy to worry about how they might look on camera. They are there in that moment, just doing their thing. Generally, do you spend lots of time and energy setting up shots, or do you have a more intuitive approach? Absolutely intuitive. I just want to let things happen as naturally as possible. Even if I am setting up a portrait I’m waiting for that ‘off moment’. I’m not one to have the patience or interest to set things up meticulously. I prefer to get in tune with what is going on around me and let the limitless outcomes of what might happen unfold as they will. I think letting go of control can be a very good thing – surrendering to what is and what will be.
Some communities, for example the Raelians with whom you’ve worked, might perceive a level of judgement or distrust from the public. But people often want to share their personal histories and you present an opportunity for them to document that. In general, do you find communities or individuals receptive to your presence? I make an effort to let everyone I photograph know what I’m up to. I want them to understand where I am coming from. I think when they meet me they realise I’m not out to expose or judge them. Who am I to expose something or someone anyway? It is a beautiful thing when people allow you the honour of accessing their lives and I think they do this because they can see my enthusiasm and curiosity is real. I have been working with the Raelians for over eight years now so it’s been a very long process and I’m sure some of the intimate access I have been granted is due to the years I have spent with them building up that trust. I respect them greatly for their openness in allowing me to learn about them in my own way, especially considering they know that I do not wish to be a Raelian myself.
What are you currently working on? What would be the ideal future project?  I’m currently working on a short film called ‘MACHINE’ with sound artist Cedie Janson. It has been a very immersive experience and true collaboration in the sense that the boundaries of our usual roles as filmmaker and sound artist have been blurred – with each of us contributing heavily to the direction of the sound, vision and thematic content. I usually work fairly autonomously, even when collaborating, but in this instance our vision was so aligned that our way of working just unfolded naturally. The film is a non-linear piece and a vivid layering of image and sound. I’m excited to release it soon. My ideal future project would be to shoot the feature film I have written that is to be set in New Mexico. Slowly, I’m assembling my cast of characters who are all really just people (non-actors) that I have met along my travels. I feel like there is a performance inside of everyone that is waiting to happen. I love being able tap into that raw energy. The film is still in its early stages but things are falling into place bit by bit.
Now for a dumb-fun question, just to round things out. If you could add any kind of feature or capability to your camera, what would it be? That’s not a dumb question at all! I love it. I would like a button on my camera that could propel me instantaneously into space so I could take photos up there! I’m a bit space obsessed. This afternoon I was watching ‘Human Earth with Brian Cox’ and started crying when they showed astronaut, William Anders, talking about his iconic photograph ‘Earthrise’. It’s just spine-tingling stuff. To make work like that… Well, that’s the dream.   Interview by Emilia Batchelor, images by Megan Cullen