Colleen Smith takes two-year-old Leonora’s hand to lead her inside the house as they get ready for the day. The family of five is together on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Jamie and Colleen work jobs away the remainder of the week. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Ocarina, 10, loves to read and is rarely without a book in hand. She is home-schooled, along with her sisters, but may enter the public school system within the next year. (Parker Michels-Boyce)
Colleen and Jamie Smith are raising a family in an old, one-room schoolhouse without running water in the Missouri woods. It’s the kind of place not easily found by typing an address into a smartphone. The Smiths have designed a unique way of life that combines traditional and modern elements; they have don’t have running water but they do have high speed internet. As technology and social media increasingly tighten their grip on the American way of life, it often requires a conscious choice to live a more simple life.
Photographer Parker Michels-Boyce has been interested in people who choose to live a less connected life since 2012. That’s when Michels-Boyce met a man living in a wigwam he built in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since then he’s been hooked on subjects that “shared a sense of eco-consciousness and an interest in preserving primitive living skills.”
When he was a participant in the Missouri workshop in 2016, Michels-Boyce used the opportunity to seek a family living off the grid and found the Smiths.
Colleen, an herbalist, and Jamie, a potter, and their three home-schooled children embrace a lifestyle that doesn’t rely much on modern convenience.
“I’ve always been captivated by picture stories and photo essays that offer an intimate look at people, families and communities far from my own life,” said Michels-Boyce, chief photographer at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va. “I grew up in a large city, but I’ve always been drawn to spend time in nature, so I was interested to see where others have found their balance.”
Colleen and Jamie laugh at an online video at the breakfast table. Although they have no running water and use a wood stove to heat the house, they are able to watch movies and listen to music via a wireless Internet connection. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Jamie gives Colleen a kiss before heading off to work in the morning. Jamie learned construction methods from his father and works a variety of jobs in the area. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Jamie lets Violet, 6, steer his truck on a side road to the site where the family is constructing a new house that they hope to move into within the next couple of years. “When we were living in apartments and stuff like that, and rental houses, it felt a little stifling in a way. It wasn’t our own thing. We like doing this because we’re building something. And it’s taking forever, and our kids have to deal with it, but they’re learning from it in the process,” he said. They plan to use the old schoolhouse as a larger pottery studio for Jamie and a place for Colleen to hold herbalist workshops. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Taking advantage of a sunny afternoon, Leonora and Violet play outside. A creek and wooded areas surrounding the property provide the children with plenty of space to explore and learn about nature firsthand. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Leonora makes a plea for attention from her mother as Colleen saws boards to use as flooring in the new house. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Jamie swings with Leonora in a hammock outside the house. “They have everything they need, as far as food, shelter and a place to sleep, a comfy place. Everybody thinks they need more and more and more. I think we can do well by living more simply,” Jamie said. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Leonora and Violet on the family’s bed midmorning. (Parker Michels-Boyce) Violet sits in the back of the family’s truck with their rescued dachshund, Precious. “We feel like we don’t want to be swept along by some artificial thing, like this is how you’re supposed to live your life. Not resisting but just going on our own path,” Jamie said. “I think of it as exploring our roots, gaining a better grasp on what’s real and valuable.” (Parker Michels-Boyce)
“Off the Grid” is In Sight’s occasional feature spotlighting the work of photographers who document lifestyles a little further and farther afield from the bustle and chaos of modern civilization. We are seeking stories from the remote corners, quiet nooks and deserted lands of the world. To submit your series to In Sight for consideration, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story should have made clear the Smiths had high speed internet requiring electricity. It did not include a description of what In Sight’s Off the Grid series is about. The story has been updated.
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