Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
September 30, 2015

Hippie Bashing: New Photos at TIME Keep New Age on the Fringe

Schapiro bliss

I can say flat out – because I’ve had my share of engagement with “the New Age movement”— these recent photos at TIME really brought me down.

If you haven’t seen them, the distinguished photographer, Steve Schapiro, and his son, Theophilus Donoghue (who apparently is into summer music happenings with a new age bent), went around the country shooting what they describe as “transformational festivals,” “neo hippies” and (biting my tongue here) “bliss ninnies,” ultimately turning their bonding experience into a photo book. To Team Schapiro, the latter term, as provided in the post, refers to “insuppressibly optimistic people” with the “goal of an earthly spirituality … mostly achieved through open-eye meditation and ecstatic dancing.”

Sadly Wiktionary, among others, takes a less ecstatic view, identifying the term “bliss ninnie” as pejorative (no surprise), referring to:

“a Pollyanna … who might seem to prefer to retreat from difficult situations by professing seemingly irrelevant platitudes, rather than to directly engage with the difficulty at hand in a meaningful way.”

or

“A student who may seem to be intoxicated with spiritual teachings, but is ungrounded or untrained.”

Besides the frivolousness, what concerns me most — since you don’t see much mention or visual depiction of the spirituality movement in its multitudinous forms in the media — is the way a complex constellation of movements, traditions, disciplines and practices seem to be lumped together and turned into kitsch. In this case, it’s all in the name of ’60’s vapor trails and a hand full of eclectic summer events chock full of Woodstock-y scenes, interspersed with some encounter group action and a couple shots of asanas thrown in.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fine that father and son went to festivals, ranging from “The Beloved” camping, art, and music festival, to “Electric Forest,” a kind of woodsy music festival with an electronic music emphasis, to “Mystic Rising,” still another festival emphasizing “yoga, ecstatic dance, and native traditions,” to the certainly less transpersonal or tie-died Burning Man, to document the doings there. What does rankle, though — the photographs mostly plying the silliness-to-eccentricity spectrum of consciousness — is how, by association, it ridicules the silent masses engaging in health, growth and spiritual pursuits that somehow continue to be perceived on the cultural fringe. (The fact the kooky phrase “New Age” is still a primary descriptor is a case in point.)

In this consumer culture and the corporate state we live in, in which ecstatic practice is understood as going viral, a buzz is a metric, followers follow each other, and the “open eye trance state” is something induced by the latest iPhone, what really “harshes me out” is the glomming together, by default, of practices and disciplines that are as rigorous and serious as they are widespread, proven and revered. Maybe in the media mirror, spirituality is dead, replaced by the Forbes wealthiest list, the commodification of “the like,” the soul-crushing productivity demands of the supply chain, and the persistent need to refill the Xanax, and the kid’s Ritalin prescriptions.

If that’s the case, all I can say is, the next time a wage slave or a college grad reeling under six-figure debt adopts a tree pose or utters an OM, God forbid who’s in the bushes with a camera at the retreat.

(photo: Steve Schapiro, from his new book BLISS. )

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