This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Last year, photographer Rebecca Rütten spent three months in a secluded hostel on a tropical island, where a group of backpackers found their utopia. She documented the daily excesses of these scantily clad free spirits, predominantly from the western parts of the globe and privileged enough to be able to escape normal life for months at a time. Rebecca tried to keep her objective distance as a photographer, but obviously she didn’t want to miss the party either. The only way to get close to her subjects was to become part of this group of hedonists who try to find the meaning of life by playing drinking games and fucking each other a lot.
She turned those months into a book called Never-Never Land, which starts out with idyllic shots of an untouched rainforest and a pig splashing in the sea. A next shot is one of two people sticking their butts in the camera, freshly tattooed with the question “¿POR QUÉ NO?” (“why not?”). Rebecca is vague about the hostel’s exact location, because she wants to protect it from a flood of visitors.
I spoke to Rebecca about how the series came about.
VICE: So you ended up with a bunch of kids in this secluded paradise, cut off from the real world, getting fucked up in a possibly toxic group dynamic. Were you ever worried about what it would be like before you went to the hostel?
Rebecca Rütten: I wasn’t, actually. My first time at this particular hostel was in January 2014. Everyone was dressed up, the music was good and loud, the people were exciting, and everything seemed so intense. There was a real sense of community. For Never Never Land, I went back to see if this lifestyle really is as carefree as it looks. But I should have questioned the excesses I noticed even when I was there for that short period the first time.
When reading your diary entries, it’s clear that you’re losing more of your objective distance every day.
The fact that it was a photo project was always in the back of my mind, but it was difficult to maintain my distance. The internet was only working intermittently, so I had very little contact with my friends and family. Many of the guests had been there for a longer time, and the rules were immediately established with newcomers. It was important to belong. Everyone participated in the drinking games and of course casual sex was encouraged too. That all added to that sort of cabin fever the group had.
How did you capture everything when you weren’t ever sober yourself?
I always had my little camera in my bag. Capturing everything was hard because I also wanted to be part of it and enjoy it. I stopped enjoying it when I started seeing how repetitive it all was. And I saw more and more people who just weren’t doing well and seemed to be trying to numb their feelings. Which is not very different from what’s happening in your average club on a Saturday night—people sometimes just want to lose their minds.
The hostel seems to be deep in the rainforest, what’s that like?
It’s tropical—there are crazy amounts of scorpions, parrots, and monkeys. I stepped on a boa constrictor once. The scenery was incredible, but it was also definitely dangerous. People in a fucked up state would start annoying the animals. And it was so isolated and in such a part of the world that you can’t just drive over to a hospital if something happens to you. Most of the guests would just take lots of pain killers and hope that whatever was wrong with them would go away.
Can you tell me a little about the handwritten diary entries we can see in the book?
I asked some interesting characters I met there some questions about their lives and asked them to write their responses in my diary. It’s amazing how naively some of them considered their time there. They wrote things like “This was the best experience of my life,” and then in the pictures you see people throwing up and shoving their scrotum in someone’s face.
A guest entry from Rebecca’s diary. It reads: “For it to be important it must have worth, for it to have worth we must gain something. What do we gain from travelling? Understanding. Knowledge. Removal of external influences that cloud our personal truths. REALIZATION.”
How do feel about backpacking after this experience?
I ask myself why it’s primarily white middle class kids trying to build these escapist utopias in developing countries, while not involving the local population. Why do they choose to go to these politically weak countries—just because the weather’s great? Or is it because they feel no one is going to bother them?
Backpacking used to be my religion—I thought it was the only true way of life. But I’m more critical of it now. When I travel, I’m looking for exchanges with people and things that I don’t understand yet—I want to get out of my bubble. The hostel is a bubble.