Sophie is an art historian, cultural manager and artisan from Vienna. Mark is a photojournalist, storyteller and documentary filmmaker. Together, they work with indigenous, artisan and underrepresented communities around the globe.
Sophie is the cultural manager, academic researcher and artisan, in her own right, from Vienna. I am a photojournalist, feature writer and documentary filmmaker who has lived and worked in over 35 countries including the polar arctic, bedouin deserts and countless seas.
Together, we established an NGO, Real Lives Multicultural Association, to empower indigenous and underrepresented communities to tell their stories, share their realities and safeguard their heritage through visual storytelling.
At the end of January, 2020, we were making final preparation to spend 2 or 3 years in the Peruvian Amazon teaching indie filmmaking to indigenous youth. We had secured the funding, partnerships and support of the local tribes, no mean feat. One month later, the world turned and all our plans feel into ruin:
- our sponsorship disappeared as panic set in;
- Iquitos became known as the worst epicenter on the planet; and
- Several of our indigenous partners succombed to the disease.
Plan A, everything we had worked towards for several years, our only means of survival and our hopes for doing something good, evaporated in less than a week.
Sometime shortly after the first lockdown ended, Sophie and I sat down to take stock of the situation: we were 6 months behind in rent; all our projects had been cancelled; our funding had been postponed, indefinately, and we had no savings whatsoever.
We realised that if, as we expected, another wave of Covid-19 was coming, we would be unable to survive another lockdown. Daunting as our situation was, it was not new. We are used to having to reinvent ourselves and find money for new projects. Admittedly, the complications that a global pandemic and economic collapse added to the equation made our next move more difficult and more important.
We had long dreamed on quiet nights of abandoning any form of base and completely embracing the life of exploration that our projects afforded us from time to time. Why not now? Did we have any choice? Was there a plan c?
Plan B was born, “The State of Europe” expedition: traveling by van throughout southern Europe documenting the ways in which real people and communities are adapting to the Pandemic. Calling it a plan is being a bit generous; we had no vehicle, no money to buy one and no idea how to do the build out. We had both been numerous times on expeditions or living in other countries but this would be different, not to mention the immense complications of crossing borders and enterring communities as the 2nd wave became a reality.
We had an idea, a direction and, most importantly, no other option: Sophie was selling ice cream at the local bakery and I was upworking web sites for food money.
With donations from members and family, we purchased a used Ford Transit bus. No budget for modifications, we removed the bench seats, added fake parquet flooring and filled it with personal effects we just could not abandon.
On September 30th, we left Austria heading for Italy, just in time before the next lockdown. ‘Just in time’ would be a phrase that would surface regularly over the first few months:
- leaving Austria the day before borders closed
- moving from our first stop in Alto Adige, early, just before flooding wiped out towns nearby;
- finding a workaway situation in Tuscany a week before Italy’s fall lockdown;
- building out the van to live in time to leave Tuscany before the first winter storm;
- arriving in Sicily before post New Years lockdown; and so on.
Five months later…five months of navigating Covid restrictions…five months of living in a van with no toilet or kitchen…five months of trying to work to earn money…five months and we still are in Italy.
In those five months, though, we have:
- Learned to harvest olives, cultivate saffron, prepare homemade pasta, build what we need;
- Encountered chefs, writers, artists, fishermen, van nomads and heros, who have shared their stories;
- Explored empty towns, pristine beaches, solitary forests, powerful storms and solitary spaces; and
- learned so much about ourselves that we didn’t know or took for granted.