haunting photographs of america's ufo believers
In 'Phenomena', three Danish photographers document a community that believes we are not alone in the universe — or on earth.
For their new book, Phenomena, Copenhagen-based photographers Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen, and Tobias Selnaes Markussen traveled to the epicenter of extraterrestrial encounters: the Southwestern United States. Their route took them to peculiar places such as Area 51 and Rachel, NV, Sedona, AZ, and Roswell, NM, where they met and interviewed UFO witnesses and believers in the unexplained. "I was abducted by aliens two times 25 years ago," said one man in the book, who asked not to be named. "The first time, they put an implant behind my ear; six months later, they took the implant out." Other believers featured in the book include Charlie Hall, who says he lived with tall, white aliens for two years; John Lear, a former CIA pilot turned conspiracy theorist; and Miesha Johnston, who claims she has given birth to 13 alien-human hybrid children in space. Though their subjects' stories are bizarre, the photographers present the people in the book with care. Their beliefs are not questioned, and their portraits are gentle. "For years, believers of extraterrestrial life have been subjects of ridicule, and with our project, we wanted to give these people the benefit of the doubt," explains Peter. "What if they are right?" In addition to the stories and portraits, the exquisite cloth-bound book — designed by Ironflag Studio and published by André Frère Éditions — includes mellow, dream-like images of UFO attractions and evidence (such as a suitcase holding pieces of metal found at the Roswell crash site in 1947). "But it is not propaganda for or against," Sara clarifies. "It's an examination of the need for human faith. And through extensive research, and collected data, we have strived to create an understanding of the modern human's eternal search for purpose in life."
Where did the idea for this project come from? Why did you want to photograph and document people who have had alien encounters?
The three of us had been working individually as freelance photographers for the last five years, and even though we share a studio together, we sometimes missed being part of a bigger team. We started talking about collaborating on a joint project, and someone brought up the idea of following the pilgrimage of the modern UFO myth by photographing places and people with significance to the subject. We found out that we shared a common fascination in the subject, and we liked the challenge, as documentary photographers, to try to document a paranormal phenomenon. The idea was to put different pieces together to try to reach an understanding of the subject.
How did you find and meet the believers in the book? Were people open to sharing their stories with you or did it take some convincing?
We did a lot of research and found people on different online UFO forums, on apps like Meetup, on Facebook, and by looking at former speakers at the UFO congresses. After meeting with people, they would usually give us contact info for other people in the community. We were welcomed into their world, and they generally wanted us to meet and talk to all the important people. All of the people we met were very open to telling us their stories. We think that they could sense our genuine interest and non-judgmental attitude — they were able to tell their stories without us questioning them. Life and belief come in so many different shapes, so why not give the people we met the benefit of the doubt?
What surprised you most about the people you met?
It surprised us how outspoken and open people were. Had we made this story in Denmark or Europe, we don´t think people would have come forward as much. It's more taboo here — you don´t tell people if you have had paranormal or extraterrestrial experiences because you are afraid of what people would think of you.
Who was the most memorable person?
We can´t highlight the most memorable person — we think that it's the mix of people with different stories and approaches that makes the subject really interesting. But our first meeting was very interesting, and because it was our first meeting and our first experience with strong believers, it did blow us away a bit. We looked at each other during this session and could see what we all thought: We found something really mind blowing here.This first meeting was at the house of Miesha Johnston in Las Vegas. Miesha hosts therapy meetings in her house called Star Family Contactee Groups, and it's a group for people who believe they are abductees or have had extraterrestrial contact. Miesha herself says that she has been involved in an alien hybrid program and that she has 13 hybrid children in space.All the people at the meeting were normal people of all ages; they spoke of their experiences in a very calm and natural way, which made it even more fascinating, surreal and interesting.
Why do you think finding extraterrestrial life is so important to some people? Why is the subject so fascinating?
The fascination is simple — the more we learn about our great universe, the more we discover that we don´t know what is out there. Today we have discovered about 5 percent of the universe, leaving 95 percent undiscovered. There is a big possibility that there is other life out there — if it is intelligent life, we don´t know yet... But if you do believe in intelligent alien life, this leads to a lot of interesting questions: Have the aliens known about us for a long time? Have our governments and leaders around the world known about alien life? Would alien life dissolve religion? Would humans be friendly toward these aliens? Would the aliens be friendly toward humans? And for every answer to these questions, there would be a ton of new questions because it wouldn´t just change one thing or have an impact on some of our daily lives, it would change everything that we know of.
So, are you believers?
It's difficult to answer because there are a lot of questions in this question. Believers that there is other life in the universe? Yes, we believe that 100 percent. Believers that UFOs are visiting our planet? Maybe, we don´t know. We don´t have any personal experiences, but we believe in the people we have met and talked to, and that they experienced something extraordinary. We are open-minded and curious to the fact that there is more to this world than we can explain.
Text Zio Baritaux
Photography courtesy Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen, and Tobias Selnaes Markussen