This body of work, called “Dinosaur Dust,” was made with the community based around the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California. It was produced during an artist-in-residence program and finished on subsequent visits.

The series offers an intimate portrait of a peripheral and charismatic group of people living in the high desert, struggling to find meaning and moments of grace within a hostile environment. The work explores the encounters between people and nature, playing with light, impermanence and the faculties of seeing.

From the series “Dinosaur Dust” © Zoe Childerley

Working with the contrast of the black of night and the blinding light of day, this work investigates the narrative potential of photography in relation to its abstract capacities, bringing forth a reality that is simultaneously uncanny and unknowable. I am interested in landscape, particularly combining a desire to experience the “sublime” with the inexplicable seduction of the abyss.

The desert is filled with many wonders. Trees grow out of rocks. Frogs emerge from the sands in a cloudburst. I found people in this desert hanging on fiercely and yet just barely. Many western desert communities came into existence because of the Small Tract Act (STA) of 1938, but these people did not necessarily thrive in this unfriendly landscape. What are these individuals escaping to (or from?) Have they been banished, almost, to a place that is misunderstood by many, regarded as a dumping ground for outcasts? Their lives are fragile, and some are heavily armed in response, like a cactus with its thorns. However, for many, that wide-open terrain invites spiritual healing — people derive comfort and nourishment from its expansive spaces. Beneath the outward appearance, the sounds of experiments, mysteries, utopias are hidden.

From the series “Dinosaur Dust” © Zoe Childerley

These deserted and remote vistas have attracted some nefarious characters. There is also a small but growing community of artists, musicians and writers fleeing rising housing prices and other urban frustrations who are reclaiming and re-envisioning the cabin structures as artist studios or creative weekend retreats. The spacious desert backdrop, its perceived tranquillity, and a desire to form a sense of community within a rural environment inspire these inventive enclaves. I’m interested in how these disparate groups live side by side.

This desert community offers many the opportunity to start anew, providing a blank slate of sorts for people attracted to a fragile and contradictory environment, to make a life in a merciless clime that is not nearly as empty as it looks. The nature of this human ecosystem is paradoxical, demonstrating an intensity and delicacy, isolation and accessibility, diversity and ambiguity.

In the American West, everywhere has been conquered and exhausted. Thus, people look towards the desolate outposts and after that, to the heavens, in search of an authentic wilderness. The images generate a powerful atmosphere and sense of place, one that is infused with the longing, uncertainty and expectation associated with the unseen.

—Zoe Childerley

If you’d like to see more work like this, we’d recommend the following articles: The North Fork, a series by Trent Davis Bailey that examines a remote area in Colorado; The Riverbed, a project that follows a group of multi-national nonconformists living in the mountains of Spain; and Zaido, documentation of an ancient wintertime ritual in Japan.