The Absence Of: A Meditation On the Importance of Untouched Spaces

Give it to me real, or give me airplane mode. I think that’s going to be my new mantra. 

I was asked by my friends at Folk Rebellion to write about the influence of Advertising and Media in our lives, and it’s hard for me to think of two words that raise my blood pressure more. I know I should be desensitized by now. Life would be a lot easier if I simply accepted that brands infiltrate every moment of our lives, even pressuring us to become brands ourselves (or else be obsolete). But I can’t accept our current circumstances. I guess I’m a fighter.

It makes me feel gross to know there are six people in a conference room in Seattle right now, whiteboarding about how to get me to buy their new rain jacket by creating an “authentic” campaign. They’ll send eight filmmakers into the wild to fake something that feels real. And then they’ll only let you watch it for 59 seconds (because our attention spans are eight), and 60 seconds is a mental barrier when deciding whether to press “play.” And you know what… I’m going to be the guy sitting between the filmmakers and marketers, artfully trying to cram a truly poetic and interesting nine-minute story into a 59-second “hit the marketing points” voiceover.

This is our world. I’m a part of it. You’re a part of it. Everything is – or will one day be – up for sale.


Most days, it can be hard to tell that we’ve lost something, since unpurchase-able space is an abstract concept. It’s not millions of acres of public land taken away by a President. It’s not an animal species we love going extinct or glaciers melting. In terms of the human race, we’ve lost something even bigger. We have lost the ability to maintain presence without incredible effort. 

We have lost the ability to maintain
presence without incredible effort. 

Before email and smartphones and social media (reminder: not that long ago) reaching us with a marketing message was relatively hard. Mainly, we had to turn on the television or radio, or open a piece of mail – all actions, all opt-ins. Today, we have to take great action — by turning everything off — not to receive branded messaging. We are opted in by default. 

Now that you’ve met cynical Matt, I’d like to introduce you to the other guy – the 90% gregarious, laugher and lover of life. The one whose calling is to create work that’s a cleanse to the branded world. It’s strange to write that, because it sounds planned and arrogant, but I actually can’t help it… I’m naturally drawn to the untouched, wild places. 

For the last decade, I’ve spent most of my working time photographing and pondering nature, as well as human beings’ place in it. Nature is my religion; it’s the closest I get to wrapping my brain around the concept of a god. The place that offers more questions than answers, and makes me feel so insignificant that I’m inspired to do something significant. Nature is the perfect real chaos to the rhythm of my soul. I immerse myself and try to bring back a real feeling – not necessarily a comfortable or brand-able one – for myself and others.


Exploration of the natural world is often the only activity during which no message can reach me. My favorite spaces are the ones where the most invasive brands  — Verizon, AT&T, Google, Apple, and the rest of the smartphone enablers — can’t even penetrate the openness. The places where it’s not profitable to wrap me in their service of confusion. These untouched places are the rarest. Unfortunately, I foresee them easily disappearing in our lifetimes. 

A few weeks ago, I was 10,000 feet high on the side of an active volcano, 40 miles from the nearest town, on an island 2,400 miles from the mainland United States, and I still had a web connection to the branded world: I could feed the world a message and it could feed me infinite in return (have you found the bottom of the internet?).

My favorite spaces are the ones where the most invasive brands  — Verizon, AT&T, Google, Apple, and the rest of the smartphone enablers — can’t even penetrate the openness.

I had many beautiful images from that day to share and, because I’m an unofficial employee of Instagram (so are you, for the record), it was tempting. But, would any place be left sacred if I spent precious minutes – at a place I may not return for 20 years – branding myself rather than enjoying myself? Caught in a mental trap, I quickly turned on Airplane Mode.

Being remote these days doesn’t necessarily mean silence from the world wide web. But there are still places on the last frontier of unreachability. 

On an isolated beach on Maui, where I had gone to get away from my small house in a small town on the most remote island chain the world, I was so relieved to read the words “no service” on my home screen. There wasn’t a choice to make, I didn’t have to self-police, I was truly operating on untouchable, peaceful ground. No tug to share this story INSTAntly, no need to brand my Tuesday escape to show how much cooler my life is than yours. I could do that on Wednesday. 


These physical places, where voices and text and the web can no longer reach me bring me back to being human. The used-to-be-normal slowness pours back in. Even the boredom feels comforting. I begin to ponder again, to listen, and to ask big questions. Conversations are at least 70% more interesting around a campfire with no service. Questions and problems must be answered and solved without our virtual assistants. In these untouched physical places, I’m alive, exposed, and empowered. And I truly feel like my life lacks absolutely nothing.

Conversations are at least 70% more interesting around a campfire with no service.

The great irony, even in the places I’ve described, is that all physical land is mapped and named and owned, and I am very much conscious of that as I observe and photograph it. Owned land feels less free to me, and I feel less free on owned land.

The good news is, if you go to the right places, you can easily forget that someone or some government holds a deed to the land under your feet. I like to go deep into public land to remember that it’s free and, as public property, it’s partially mine. I like to go high up in the mountains, to places that are snowy and blowing and demand my full attention. I like to go into the ocean — above water with the waves and below water with the creatures — to be surrounded by its motion, and its sense of universal ownership. I like to be so exposed to and challenged by nature that I can’t think about posting it, I can only think about being it. 

And if you and I can’t be in these physical places when we want to be, we can always find a similar feeling inside. We each have tools to unlock our wilder places within. Consciously disconnect, thoughtfully look inside, and immediately the world feels and sounds, looks and smells different. 

Traveling through unbranded space is a moving meditation. 

Once you’ve found some personal wild places, don’t let too much time go by without visiting them. Protect them, and make sure that loved ones are protecting their unbranded spaces too. Talk about them with people you like. Ask them about theirs. And, now, because I have to survive in our made-up world just like you, I must leave this meditation and get back to building my brand. 

This piece was originally published in Folk Rebellion's print publication "The Dispatch," Issue No. 3, April 2018.