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Toronto based photographer Jude Star tells us all about is new photo book released at Working Title in Toronto this past October, Do you believe in magic?. In a limited book that shows us 53 full colour photos all shot on 35mm film, Jude is exploring psychedelic experiences and mystical states during his experience in a British Columbia music festival, where weirdness and self-exploration is intentionally cultivated and celebrated through consciousness altering substances and activities. In this atmosphere he strove to capture the freedom, intimacy and uninhibited lively self-expression that pervades this subversive culture. By doing so he managed to find a connection with that magic we always felt in our childhood and might eventually lost.
Your new photo book, Do you believe in magic?, is portraying the atmosphere of this music festival scenario in British Columbia. How have you personally lived this experience? 
A few years back an old childhood friend was passing through town and driving back out west to BC, so he invited me to come along with him. He talked up these festivals a lot, and I got to tell you, I was a bit skeptical because festivals in Ontario, where I’m from, aren’t all that. I ended up having one of the best times of my life, and all his friends welcomed me with open arms. Of course I brought a bunch of cameras and ended up getting some of the best photos I had ever taken. So I was instantly hooked. I flew out again a month later for another festival, I was very passionate about capturing the experience and seeing how far I could take this project.
Have you shot these pictures with a photographer’s point of view or were you feeling completely absorbed by the situation?
I went for total absorption. So yes, I was as high as my subjects. My process developed as I went on. These photos are from six different festivals. At first I was shooting everything, but then I slowed down and found my rhythm: when you shoot too fast or too much, you can mess with the natural unfolding of things and I really didn’t want to alter people’s experiences too much. Often I wouldn’t even take out my camera for the first day (the festivals are 3 days long) and I realized that there were certain times where people were more immersed in the experience and had their guard down. One of the best times for this was sunrise. So I would party all night, often taking only a few photos with my point and shoot, and then go get my SLR right before the sun started coming up. Then for an hour or two at sunrise I would go full photographer mode, but I’d still try to connect with each person a bit before I’d snap a photo. I wanted them to feel like the photo was taken with real respect and dignity, really honouring their experience, because a lot of them were in a very vulnerable place.
The people you shot seems to be so relaxed and with no worries of being photographed. Are the majority of them friends of yours or people you met on the spot?
It’s about half and half. I had a great crew of friends I was with, and whom I photographed a lot, and that crew would grow as the festival went on. But whenever I’d see a really interesting person or situation I’d usually ask them if it was ok that I take a picture of them, or I’d approach with a big smile and a little nod while hold my camera up a little, seeking permission before I shoot. The thing is there is such an amazing and loving energy at times that I really don’t want to disturb it, I want to respect what’s happening. So I try to meet them there, be a part of the situation and not an outsider.

Your documentary photography is all about portraying the fringe cultures and psychedelic experiences. What do you try to tell people with your photos?
Well there’s many layers to the experience, and different people are going to get different things out of it, so I want that to remain open to the viewer. But there are a few strong themes I’m trying to communicate. One is the uninhibited ridiculousness and fun that we’ve forgot how to have. We take ourselves so seriously in the world, and it’s really unfortunate. But on a deeper level, there’s something more profound happening here. Being in these environments, on psychedelics, there is a real clarity that can come. When you take yourself so far outside of your conventional way of being, you can look at your life from a completely different viewpoint. People can orient to deeper values that were previously overlooked, things like community, connection, compassion, celebration, gratitude, and love. We can see how much these things have been missing from our lives, and how essential they are to our wellbeing. The experience can be so powerful that it becomes truly transformative, and I guess that’s what I’m really trying to capture, as impossible as that seems.
Tell us about the choice of your new book’s title, what’s this sense of magic you are talking about?
There was this party bus that had that phrase on it, and I took the photo and only later ended up realizing it’s the perfect name for the show, so I used a crop of that photo for the book cover. When I was a kid I had this sense that there was magic in the world, there was this sense that anything is possible. As I grew up this feeling faded of course, but through these experiences, with festivals, with psychedelics, with shamanism (another project I’m working on), I had these truly mystical experiences, contact with the mystery of the cosmos, something truly ineffable.
What are the reasons behind the analog camera choice for this project? Do you always shoot with this medium or do you use digital as well?
I shot mainly digital for a long time, and the first festival I went to I brought my digital as well as analog cameras, thanks to my photographer friend Rick Indeo urging me to shoot more analog. My digital camera was so big and bulky compared to my analog cameras and it also felt more invasive. These little analog cameras are much more low profile, and people are just more relaxed around them. I find that each camera has a rhythm, and analog cameras are much slower, which can be really nice for more laid back subjects. Also with digital, everyone always wants to see a picture after you take it, which can really mess with the natural flow of things. And there’s just something special about film, when you capture a really great photo on film, it just feels like more of an accomplishment, partly because it’s something tangible. The whole process of shooting on film is just more romantic.

“We’ve forgot how to play, how to be vulnerable, and the deep and genuine connections that this attitude can forge.”
The photos you took were inspired by this non-ordinary state of consciousness achieved through psychedelic drugs, music and dancing. What’s the best moment you’ve had in this experience?
The second festival I ever went to, the sun was rising on the last morning and something happened that I had never experienced before. There was this overwhelming sense of love and connection on the dance floor, and as I looked around, I could see it wasn’t just me, that everyone else could feel it too. I could almost feel it coming up from the earth and enveloping us all, it was pure ecstasy. I realized that it was the most perfect feeling I had ever felt up until that point, that it was truly satisfying, there was nothing else to be desired at that moment. It’s happened a few times since, always during sunrise. Sometimes you’ll see big group hugs and people crying, it’s really something special. I think it’s not just a result of all the psychedelics, but also the dancing all night, the playful attitudes, the lack of sleep, being out in nature, and the natural camaraderie that develops over the course of such a wild shared experience.
Are you going to keep working on this topic in the future?
Absolutely. I’m going to put out some other projects first, partly because I want to show I’m more dynamic and don’t want to get too pigeonholed. The other main project I’m working on is all photos taken on ayahuasca retreats, so there’s a common thread but the tone is very different. But I’m just hooked on these festivals now, not just the experience or photos but the friends I’ve made too, so I can’t imagine myself stopping anytime soon.
The mood, the people, the atmosphere and the style of your photos and of your subjects remind me a lot of the Woodstock festival world. Which photographers have been an inspiration to you?
The photographers that inspired me actually shoot much different subject matter, but it’s the way that they shoot that inspires me. To be honest, I think my best friend Rick Indeo was the biggest inspiration for me, he’s an amazing photographer and like an older brother to me. He was the one that really encouraged me to shoot the way I do. But as far as well known photographers, my influences are Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Alec Soth and also Jason Nocito. These are all photographers that really immerse themselves in the culture they are shooting, there’s a real intimacy. It’s because there’s a genuine and complex relationship with the subjects, and that really comes across in their work. What they shoot goes beyond simple interest, they are shooting what they are truly living, something they have a real connection with, giving the viewer a real experience of the culture from the inside. That’s the type of photography I love, the photos that show us deeper aspects of people we could never normally see otherwise.

Gaia Bonanomi
Matt Medley

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