An overview of photographs taken by the award winner Iranian photographer; Hossein Fatemi, of Slab City; the last free place in America
Text by Atia Shafee
Heading south, past the Salton Sea where farmland turns to dusty towns, following the tyre tracks of trailers and camper vans deep into the parched desert, a landscape of shabby vehicles that have taken root in the ground emerges. For years, a diverse group of people have been drawn to the former US marine base of Camp Dunlap, now known as ‘Slab City’ after the concrete slabs left by the US Army when it withdrew in the early 1950s. Today ‘The Slabs’ is a free campsite and alternative living community located near an active bombing range in the Sonoran Desert of Imperial County, California.
The population fluctuates between a few hundred to a few thousand people, depending on the season of the year. During the winter months, the abandoned navy base becomes an off-grid living community for as many as several thousand campers. These seasonal, temporary residents, known as “snow-birds”, mostly live in their RVs or squat in vacant structures. The permanent dwellers, known as “Slabbers” live here year-round. In the summer months, temperatures can reach almost 50C.
Many Slabbers come here to live rent-free due to poverty and unemployment. Others, however, come in search of the freedom that comes with living completely off-grid in a wide open desert environment. Without any sources of fresh water, electricity or sewage treatment, residents rely on solar panels and bathe in one communal hot spring.
The Slabs is mainly known an alternative community that features a community library, social clubs, cafes and a sculpture garden. Yet, with no rules or laws enforcement, some squabbles have resulted in shootouts over the years.
In many of the makeshift dwellings of the permanent Slabbers, people exchange stories about their previous lives; tales of social and economic exclusion, of missed opportunities and of deprivation. The wealth and glitter of corporate America and industrial infrastructure underpinning it couldn’t be further away from the scorched plains of the Sonora desert where the Slabbers have retreated to create a reality all of their own.
As America continues to promote a vision of muscular nationalism and economic prowess, hardship has pushed large numbers of Americans into further to the margins; from people fleeing their foreclosed homes to dejected U.S. war veterans, the Land of Opportunity seems to offer little consolation or encouragement. The inhabitants in Slab City have formed a tight community of like-minded people who have all, for their separate reasons, decided to escape the burdens of modern life and move in an entirely different direction to their fellow citizens.