I’ve spent a lot of time traversing around the Mojave, which you know if you have read my blog over the past couple of years. And I’ve spent a lot more time trying to invest in shooting actual subjects, not just landscapes. In the north-eastern corners of Los Angeles county there’s a series of smaller, sparse populations of people in the areas off the 14 and 128, from Pearblossom all the way up to the Trona/Ridgecrest areas, and my first few drives through the areas the people seemed nice enough. Helpful, even, as I tried to navigate around, often without cell service, as some of the foothill areas extend far deep into canyon areas, long past the Jesus Saves signs posted along some of the backroads just before you get to the Mojave windmills.
On one particular occasion traveling to a specific area, I stopped and had a conversation with a few folks (two dusty young men and a girl) outside a gas station/cafe on the side of a desert highway and though the conversation was light I got the feeling that they were looking at me differently every time I diverted my eyes to my map. When I’m out shooting alone, especially in these more sparsely populated areas, I’m always hypersensitive to encounters with people and perhaps a little more guarded. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t just my imagination.
In retrospect (hind sight is always 20-20), the guy asked more than the normal amount of questions about what I was taking pictures of in the area but at the time I didn’t think anything of it more than casual conversation. Banjo music, however, did start playing in my head. Regardless, I gave them my blog url and loaded up Schroeder back into the car and didn’t think anything of it.
Didn’t think anything of it until he messaged me on WordPress, that is.
He had read about the fairy tales project I was doing and had seen the sample photo of Hansel and Gretal I had posted up, where the atmosphere is dark and you can tell that something just isn’t right. “If you’re interested in that kind of thing for photos, I can show you something real that you might like. When is the next time you’re coming out here?”
It was mid-October. Fall everywhere, except Los Angeles proper.
We continued the conversation, him revealing that he was willing (along with the girl and the other man I had met) to “show me a side of the county I hadn’t seen before.” They were a part of a …group, I suppose, who were into “mystical” and “often overlooked” aspects of spirituality. Misunderstood. There was a lotttttt of Nietzsche in there, but I’m not entirely sure he knew that. Not having a lot of patience for relatively anonymous vagaries, I asked him when, where and exactly *what* I’d be shooting. I had no intention of meeting up again with three complete strangers in the goddamned desert in a clandestine canyon alone. I’m fairly confident that’s how most 20/20 episodes begin.
After continued conversation and some bad judgement I decided that this was something I was actually going to do. After all, I’d always wanted to try my hand at some journalistic photography and this was a great chance to grab something real, and potentially something really fucked up. I left my known coordinates (last known, considering I wasn’t sure where we’d be going) on my desk in the office with a print out of the conversation I had had online, and told my friend Amy to come to my house to feed the dog and go into my office if she hadn’t heard from me via text or otherwise by 9 pm that night.
What could possibly go wrong.
Short story long, after a long in-person conversation and a lot of questions on my end about what exact spiritual transformation they were trying to achieve via their, admittedly dedicated, path of mystical religion, we set out. Time is a flat pancake, blah blah blah, meth.
I followed them in my car and after about 25 minutes, we parked on the side of a dirt road in a quiet flat open space of fields and oak trees after navigating a one-lane paved road for a few miles.
That’s when shit got real. Solemnly, two donned black pullover robes and incredibly fucking creepy masks. In the same way temples and churches dating back to the gothic era have spires, these pointed hats lead your eye to the sky, denoting all things unknown or unknowable. It’s this basic concept that this particular group or sect focuses on their worship. I learned that all in all there’s about 50 of them in the area, ranging from 12 years old to 60. They have no name for what they are or do, and it’s been going on for a long time in that area.
I began shooting as we walked, and there wasn’t really anything too out of the ordinary. I was surprised, however, when we reached a clearing and there were stacked stones all around and a clearly marked circle, candles and burlap sacks all around.
All just a few miles from the road, out in the middle of where it looks like there’s nothing for miles.
The full gallery is below.