Light Painting Photography from a Squatters’ Camp in California -

Over the course of a few years, the photographer Jean-François Bouchard spent approximately six weeks living in a squatters’ community in the California desert, located at the site of a now-decommissioned military base. During that time, he captured the landscape, tracing the story of its inhabitants through evocative light painting.

The 400 to 500 people who live here year-round do so without access to running water, electricity, or waste removal and outside of the jurisdiction of any local government. Their reasons for joining the community vary; some crave freedom, while others have been forced there by economic uncertainty. 

Exile from Babylon, currently exhibiting in New York City, is Bouchard’s portrait of a place that’s been shaped by harsh conditions, desert heat, and limited resources. We spoke with him recently to learn more about his work in this community.

Can you tell me a bit more about this particular community? How did you first learn about it?

“The community lives on a decommissioned military base located in the desert. There is still an active bombing range for fighter jets adjacent to it. The 400-500 souls who live there year-long do so without running water, electricity, garbage removal or any form of local government. Most of them live in derelict RVs or shanties. For some of them, it is a choice driven by libertarian values or a sense of adventure. But for many, it is the last stop on a long journey into homelessness and a stark reminder of the Californian inequalities. In my opinion, this place is in effect the first economic refugee camp for American citizens.”

How much time did you spend there, and what does daily life look like for the people who live there? Why do you think they trusted you to tell part of their story? 

“I lived in the community for about 6 weeks over a period of a few years. I elected to sleep there most of the time instead of going to hotels in nearby towns (not that they are 5-star hotels, trust me!). I think that this helped me build rapport with community members by briefly and informally joining different camps.”

Are these trees from the community itself, or were they photographed elsewhere? 

“The trees are located in the community. Because of the absence of garbage removal and of the desert high winds, they are often adorned - albeit in a post-apocalyptic manner - with all kinds of debris. Some people also contribute to this by throwing stuff in the trees as some kind of irony.”

Why did you choose to photograph the trees rather than the people themselves or their homes?

“I felt that the trees represented an interesting metaphor of the human condition there and of the relationship between the harsh desert nature and inhabitants. I also wanted to keep the story-telling somewhat indirect and create a reflective moment for viewers. By recreating my own eerie nightly wanderings for the exhibition, I am hoping to immerse viewers into my experience there.”

Did you find the trees like this, with the debris? If so, is this common in the desert? Did you place any of the debris in the trees yourself? Did you remove any of the debris yourself?

“Trees were pretty much like that. I even saw a tree with a large sofa in it. It obviously had been put there by residents. But, yes, we did do some debris « art direction » on a few photographs! I would not do that if I was a journalist but as an artist it is acceptable to do that, especially if the goal is to recreate something previously observed.”

Can you tell me a bit about the incredible light in these images? What did your setup look like, and what conditions did you look for?

“That’s a funny one. All these images (except one) has been shot with a flashlight bought in a dollar store. It looks rich because of long exposure, light-painting… And a lot of patience!”

Have the residents of this community seen the images? If so, what do you think it means to them to have their stories represented in this way?

“Residents are wary of tourists and journalists taking pictures or filming, less so of artists I discovered. They were quite enthusiastic about the project. It was not as hard as one would imagine to interact with them… In my experience, this is generally true when the photographer - or any visitor for that matter - approaches a community with zero judgement.”

What is your most powerful memory from your time working on this series? Anything you'll never forget?

“The presence of kids was very emotional for me. I decided against representing them in the photographs but to me they nevertheless inhabit this body of work and the memories I will forever keep of this surreal place.”

Further reading:

Do you like getting full length interviews with photographers in your inbox?

Did you know Feature Shoot’s premium newsletter subscribers get access to:

Read Feature Shoot in the app

Listen to posts, join subscriber chats, and never miss an update from Feature Shoot.

Get the iOS appGet the Android app

© 2023 Feature Shoot
13 Oatley Rd., Paddington, NSW 2021, Australia

Start writing