A lack of water, migration, exploitation: Lars Borges’s photographs reveal the effects of unrestrained capitalism in America. Yet, above all, he speaks about the indomitable enthusiasm of the people he encountered. He has created a colourful and dreamlike book, full of love and affection for the individual.
It’s said that you fell in love with Imperial County when you were up in an air plane…
It would be more accurate to say that my interest was sparked. At the time, I was working on a job in the USA; the first part of the photo shoot was in New Orleans, and the second in San Diego. To cover this distance, you fly over the southern border of the USA for a number of hours; over nothing but endless desert landscapes. I was looking out of the window, lost in thought, when all of a sudden this huge green grid appeared in the desert – so large, such as I’d never seen before. I asked myself: how can that be – a field in the desert? Directly after my assignment, I set out on a research trip, which was followed by three further visits.
This county is one of the newest, but also poorest in America. How did you find the situation there?
To put it carefully, the situation is extreme. The desert is made fertile by spraying the fields with enormous amounts of water and manure. The landscape is highly industrialised, which pollutes the natural environment, and the people suffer from asthma… The Salton Sea is the largest artificial reservoir in the USA. It stinks, and dead fish line its banks. There are virtually no jobs to be had; day workers labour in the fields for a pittance, under a blazing sun. The food is unhealthy, the tap water undrinkable, and daily life is governed by drugs and illegal immigrants. There is a theory that when the Big One – the long-expected major earthquake – hits the centre of Imperial Valley, the whole area will be flooded. To be precise, Mad Max is not too far from the lifestyle in Imperial County.
Is your series a criticism of society?
Yes, but it’s not an anti-American book. I love the strength and optimism of the Americans, and I have a lot of good friends there. Even so, it is a criticism of unbridled capitalism, according to the American model. If we don’t want conditions on the whole planet to become like Imperial County, in the end, then certain things will simply have to be regulated politically. I believe that a functioning social market economy, that takes the environment and people’s interests into account, is better for everyone than a system based simply on maximising profits.
What was your photographic approach?
It was important for me to be there, not as an outsider, making judgements from the top down; so, in principle, I first had to understand what living there actually means. I achieved this by drawing close to my protagonists. I wanted to show the people at eye level, and allow them a degree of control over their own images.
How did you manage to get the people to trust you enough, so that they were actually willing to bare themselves in front of your camera?
Most importantly, it took a lot of time and honesty. I kept my protagonists as broadly and deeply informed as possible, discussing and checking my plans and intentions with them. Some pictures took days. I often spent a day with the people I wanted to photograph, before ever hitting the trigger – as in the case, for example, of the nudist camp. Other pictures were spontaneous – the result of a direct reaction to some occurrence.
Temperatures in Imperial County can rise to as much as 50° C. How did you experience the heat, and how did the M9 deal with it?
The heat is deadly; you become dehydrated, and your lips crack. People can die of thirst – such as when they try to cross the border illegally. Car tyres become soft and radiators boil; but the camera functioned outstandingly, and the light was ideal for the Kodak CCD sensor.
You preferred to use colour and landscape format…
I see my pictures mostly in colour. The light in California is incredible, and it would be a pity to do without colour rendering. The landscape format supports the cinema-like “road movie” style of the project.
Film director Terrence Malick is one of your role models; he mostly explores the connection between individuals and nature. How does that connection figure in your project?
Terrence Malick’s poetry and powerful imagery have always fascinated me; but things are a bit more prosaic in Imperial County. Maybe what’s similar is the recognition that people are shaped by the environment they live in. At the same time, they try to shape and design that environment, with more or less success. In this sense, of course, the conditions in Imperial County shape the physiognomy and presence of the protagonists.
How did the aerial landscape shots come about?
This is where Americans can be so great and uncomplicated! A pilot I just happened to meet offered to take me up in his Cessna, to show me everything from up in the air. He was obviously delighted to fly me back and forth over the whole valley. Whenever I wanted to take a picture, he flew me to the right spot, and simply tipped the plane to the side. What’s more, right from the first, he allowed me to take off and land the plane.
Does the American Dream still exist in Imperial County?
Yes, the dream exists, but it comes true for very few people. The amazing thing, however, is that the poorer the people, the more they believe in it. Somehow the system has managed to make people believe that if they fail, it’s their own fault – not like the Germans, who tend to blame the state or politics. In my experience, doubt about the American Dream is found more among the really affluent and educated elite in America’s large cities.
What experience did you take away from Imperial County?
Our species is capable of adapting and establishing itself, even under the harshest conditions; and, in the end, you experience warm and human moments everywhere. What’s more, I learnt that an ice-cold six-pack of beer in the desert will open many doors.
Lars Borges studied Photography with Prof. Dr. Manfred Paul and Dr. Enno Kaufhold. He has been working for fifteen years as a freelance photographer, based in Berlin, for clients and magazines around the world. His work has been exhibited on numerous occasions, including at the Leica Gallery and the Art Museum in Vienna. He has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian and Zeit magazine. In addition to working as an assignment photographer, Borges produces his own photographic essays and projects. Imperial County, the book presented here, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2017. Find more information on his website and Instagram channel.