Laura Henno

2017 - Ongoing

In the middle of the Sonoran desert in the South of California, Slab City is erased from maps. The area, originally a military base active during the Second World War, was dismantled in 1956. A handful of soldiers then decided to stay on the ruins of the camp and they were soon joined by a few workers attracted by the local job pool. This marked the start of a camp that, for the past fifty years, has welcomed social outcasts: a refuge for people wishing to disappear. Without water or electricity, free from taxes or any form of law, Slab City residents turned their backs to the American Dream by choosing to live in the last free U.S. territory. Each winter, roughly 2000 mobile campers, including ‘‘Snowbirds’’— pensioners in their lavish caravans — and any other kinds of travelers, join the likes of the 150 permanent residents — called ‘‘Slabbers’’— in a quest for sun and freedom in the desert. Slab City evokes a post-apocalyptic no man’s land, isolated in the desert and bordering the two largest existing American military training bases. This surrealistic sight is compounded by the sounds of explosions and the constant flight of fighter jets, turning Slab City into a space where utopia is met with violence. The camp highlights gaps visible within American society. These gaps are explored in my photographic project through the scope of individual journeys of residents, but also interactions between residents and neighboring local populations.


The name Slab City is derived from concrete slabs scattered in this desert. Those concrete blocks are traces of the area’s military past as a former American Army base known as Marine Barracks Camp Dunlap, which was abandoned after the Second World War. A handful of militaries decided to remain on site, fixing up makeshift shelters, and were joined, in the 1960s, by seasonal workers

who could not afford homes in the city. Little by little, other recreational vehicles’ inhabitants, living in equipped buses, vans, tents and other precarious housing means, settled and make for what is today’s Slab City. The campsite is kept a mystery by its residents; its existence is known through word of mouth, knowledge granting access to the location. People gather from all around the coun-try to be part of a space where it is possible to feel unbeholden.

The ideal of itinerant populations has nurtured the imagination of North Americans: its pioneers and hobos, its seasonal workers who changed settlements according to availability of employment at construction sites, or its beatniks and okies, the Southwestern U.S. farmers who migrated in the 1930s to California in hope of a better life. Dorothea Lange photographed okies and other migrant workers, as she was one of many photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. Those populations find a contemporary echo in the current inhabitants of Slab City. From its origins onwards, the camp has been the mirror of the American history of migration — the subject of this project — whether one considers the camp’s contemporary devel-opments or its historical representations.

Social, human and political aspects are also of interest to me, and Slab City is a reflection of what is happening on a larger scale, in the U.S., a way to describe the entire society through the lives of the city’s residents. Slabbers generally have hurdled personal journeys, and were forced to find differ-ent ways of living (or rather ways to live on), within the society. For many of them, after numerous disillusions, Slab City appeared like a last chance. The subprime mortgage crisis also compelled many middleclass Americans to find alternative housing conditions. The Slabbers do not see the desert land as a gateway towards a better world, but rather the best of worlds they consider livable. Yet, life in the Sonoran desert is far

from calm. If the myth of the de-sert creates fascination, living there for a full year in precarious conditions, without water, electrici-ty, sewage system, or A/C and with the company of rattlesnakes, has everything to do with surviv-ing. Adjusting to their new residence, Slabbers create, day by day, a new society in which they find their place and reinvent their everyday life with the unique rule of not stepping on anybody else’s freedom. In the middle of the desert, life revolves around two focal points: finding water and elec-tricity: saving the vital minimum as best as one can.

A semblance of community seems to emerge, along with celebrations, among the seriousness and the anarchy, which prevail; lives running on empty revived by a profound desire of freedom and tranquility. Each person’s past is left behind and a live-for-today attitude embraced. People’s life stories, and the study of their relationships with their neighboring environment direct my project: the desert acting as a frontier, separating them from the rest of the world.


I made my first visit to Slab City in total immersion. I have stayed two months from January to Feb-ruary 2017. I lived in a travel trailer with solar panels. There was also a water reserve in order to be fully independent : The Ideal Trailer! By creating my proper camp I wanted to confront myself to this particular experience of life in the desert in order to define the impact of this isolation. I did a second trip there in april 2018 to work specially with Pastor Dave for 3 weeks. Dave created the Ministry of church few years ago. He gathers around him a small part of the population who find in the Ministry of Church an appeasement. Underworld is a work in progress. I’m currently working on a long film called HAVEN. I plan to live in slab city next year to continue the film and the pictures.

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  • Annie at church, Slab city (USA), 2018

  • Michael, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Maryann and Jack-Jack, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Kronos and Julie, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • The Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Julie, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • The runaway boy, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Tall Paul, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Connie, Slab city (USA), 2017.

  • Ethan, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Raven and HeShe, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Pastor Dave, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Raven and Michael, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • The ministry of church, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Pastor Dave preaching, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Maryann, Jack, Ethan and Jack-Jack, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • The Marinne’s trailer, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • The runaway boy, Slab city (USA), 2017

  • Dog bible, Slab city (USA), 2018

  • Kasey and Timmy, Slab city (USA), 2018