The Riverbed exhibition: photographs of a secret Spanish mountain commune

Photographer Ben Murphy looks back on his 10-year study of a community of British punks, hippies and nomads living in Andalucía

A photograph and caption was removed in response to a legal complaint.

In his letters, he described it as “paradise”. Eventually, after months of exchanging hand-written notes via a PO Box, the unnamed man granted Ben Murphy an invitation to the place known as “the Riverbed”. It was the summer of 2006, and they met in a small bar in a hilly town in Andalucía, south-eastern Spain. “It was already evening and it was dark,” Murphy says. “He was very suspicious of me – a stranger coming to his territory with a large camera. He grilled me: ‘Who are you? What are you doing? Why are you doing it?’”

Murphy, a 56-year-old photographer from Derbyshire, had been exchanging letters with the man for months, after a written introduction from a mutual friend. Murphy was there, he told the man, in the hope of understanding, and documenting the Riverbed – a highly secretive commune of countercultural British settlers living in a dried-up riverbed hidden deep within the mountains.

Finally, the man invited Murphy to join him in his beaten-up truck, and they drove further into the wilderness. After an hour, they took a sharp turn off the road and bumped along an unmarked dirt track. “Through the darkness, I started to become aware of trucks, vans, coaches and makeshift homes along the edges of the road,” Murphy says. “I could see bonfires, dim lights, people gathered around drinking and smoking. I felt like I was on the set of Mad Max.”

Pan’s home, the Riverbed, Andalucia, 2012.
Pan’s home, Andalucia, 2012 Photograph: Ben Murphy

Murphy was given a hut to sleep in. He bedded down on mud and straw and discovered the next morning that he’d been sharing the space with a donkey. Over the coming months he met and became familiar with the mostly British citizens who have made this strange community their home. No one had ever photographed this place before, and Murphy’s resultant series of pictures is about to be exhibited in London.

“Some of the people were pretty intimidating,” Murphy admits, choosing his words carefully when we meet in London. “But there were also lots of hippies and punks and hedonists and nomads. They were all trying to escape something, and they all believed in something too.”

The people Murphy photographed were the products of various generations, cultures and nations: from across Europe, North and Latin America, as well as an autistic boy and his mother from Israel, and a former porn star from Japan. Some came from wealthy and privileged backgrounds and arrived there craving a simpler lifestyle. They were all in search of a similar idyll – a desire to reject everything we consider to be normal, and to live a life ungoverned by authority. “For everyone, it was a very personal choice to be there,” says Murphy.

The only rules were unwritten. “Anyone can set up camp. But if you do something deemed antisocial, like steal, deal ‘bad’ drugs, or become violent, you will be forcibly evicted. I remember seeing burnt-out trucks, and people didn’t like me asking about them.”

The Volcano, 2015
The Volcano, Andalucia, 2015 Photograph: Copyright Ben Murphy

But many of the people, he stresses, were extremely welcoming. A few days in, he came across a young girl as he walked along a mountain path. “I told her my name and asked for hers, and she said: ‘Oh, I don’t really have a name, but you can call me Happy.’ Then she asked me for a hug.”

As he slowly gained their trust, Murphy began to photograph the people of the Riverbed. Using a 5x4 large format camera, he took conventional portraits at fir st. But after numerous trips, over the course of 10 years, he began to focus on “a type of portraiture that excluded the inhabitants”.

The exhibition at London’s Architectural Association shows the homes that the 50 or so people have built. Some have constructed Hobbit-like dwellings with composting toilets, solar lights, animal pens and vegetable patches. Others live in a state of ramshackle chaos – in decrepit, broken-down vehicles or improvised tents, with detritus strewn all around. Every few years, the riverbed floods and the homes must be rebuilt from scratch.

Crusty Mark's caravan 2006
Crusty Mark, Andalucia, 2006 Photograph: Copyright Ben Murphy

There are people who work and make regular trips to the local town to buy food and amenities such as gas, batteries and tools. Others forgo any sort of monetary transaction and rarely leave the commune. “Some people were deeply conscious of their surroundings, and very concerned about where goods came from. Others just seemed to be motivated by a hedonistic lifestyle,” recalls Murphy.

His photography series examines how such homes mix the residue from our wider world with the minute demands of a self-sufficient lifestyle unencumbered by any sense of cultural norms. “Everyone there has to compromise. To achieve any sense of domesticity, they have to contend with an often harsh environment. And they have to contend with our globalised society, which they still, in many ways, have to rely on. So there’s always a tension between this thirst for freedom and the practicalities of such a remote and unforgiving life, the need for things like electricity and gas and clean water and everything else so readily available to us.”

Alpha and Imani caravan interior
Alpha and Imani, Andalucia, 2006 Photograph: Copyright Ben Murphy

But Murphy believes we can learn from the people of the Riverbed. “We are all being encouraged, and possibly forced, to live an unsustainable life,” he says. “The people I met are on the whole decent, compassionate and resourceful, and they care about the planet more than most of us. They may not fit into our society, but we have to be willing to accept such alternative views. They can help us think about our relationship to our home, and our own sense of freedom.”

The Riverbed is on show until 31 March and from 19 April to 27 May at the Architectural Association Gallery in London. A limited edition photobook is available from


Tom Seymour

The GuardianTramp

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