Sheela Birnsteil, more commonly known as Ma Anand Sheela, was the personal secretary to the (late) spiritual leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. In 1981, Sheela relocated their commune from Pune, India to Oregon, USA and built a substantial city, which they named “Rajneeshpuram.” Her life was devoted to Bhagwan; his teachings, his vision, his demands.
Their arrival caused much conflict with the locals and what unfolded was an unthinkable maelstrom of events including allegations of attempted murder, a bio-terror attack and espionage. Eventually, Sheela was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, of which she served 39 months.
As controversial as the saga was (documented in the 2018 Netflix series, 'Wild, Wild Country') Sheela's achievements were remarkable. Her fierce spirit caught the attention of many. Where had life taken her?
I had discovered from various online media sources that Sheela had moved to Switzerland after her release. She had opened two nursing homes and dedicated her life to caring for people with disabilities and mental illness, in honour of her parents.
I wanted to learn more about Sheela's journey. A young, Indian woman, fearless in a male dominated and prejudice society and led by utter devotion to her leader - how did she navigate such a storm? I found a way to get in touch and after an email exchange and Whatsapp call, she invited me over to meet her.
I couldn't explain the purpose of my visit entirely, but I was led by a deep sense of intrigue. We talked and shared, ate delicious food, talked some more, laughed - and I also cried. I asked a multitude of questions and I wandered amongst the residents, learning their stories and witnessing the support that was available to them. I thought the whole experience would tie in well for my university assignment (MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography) but it didn't. I didn't know how to be a "photojournalist" in this and I don't think I wanted to be.
What transpired upon my return to the UK was that the conversations we shared, as though gifted by the universe, were going to help me through my own emotional journey, coming to terms with both my grandmother's and my father's illnesses. I came back with a deeper understanding of dementia - and the importance of coming to terms with death.
Here are some photos taken at one of the homes; Matrusaden (Mother's House) in the hills of Maisprach.