Dinosaur Dust – Zoe Childerley

I grew up in Cambridgeshire, UK, and have lived all over the UK with extended stays abroad on residencies and travelling, but now live in Hastings on the south coast. I’m a photographer and artist but I also lecture at Brighton University and have a background in community projects.

Share with us your journey to photography.

I started off as a graphic designer which led to an interest in image and text and mixed media. I still draw and sometimes that comes into my photography projects. Over the last few years, my work has been developed by immersion into different communities, reflecting a vision of the world concerned with identity, belonging and our relationship to the land and its stories. 

I’ve always lived in urban areas so I think that prompted the fascination with the rural as something that seemed exotic and “other” when I was younger. I’m interested in the more visceral way of life with a direct connect to land and nature every day, the concept of wilderness and the search for a primordial connection.

Let’s talk about your project and book ‘Dinosaur Dust’. What’s it about? What was your motivation behind making the work?

‘Dinosaur Dust’ was made between 2014-19 over several trips through the Mojave Desert in California. It began with an artist residency in Joshua Tree. I was drawn to the American West because of the landscape and people’s distinctive relationship to it; the vast panoramic vistas of the Californian desert reflect the once new visual language of the American West as early settlers disengaged from their European heritage and formed a uniquely American sensibility that celebrated the landscape as a birthplace of patriotic sentiment.

The scale is breathtaking and, in comparison, the British landscape can feel diminutive and very cultivated.

The title ‘Dinosaur Dust’ is a metaphor for the history of exploration and exploitation in the region, the desire to conquer in the name of progress alongside an allusion to the tenuous, transient, and fleeting nature of existence as we strive to find meaning in our relationships with the land, its history and those we share it with.

I began by interviewing people in the communities of the Mojave, discovering what draws them to this fragile and contrary environment, to make a new life in a merciless clime that is not nearly as empty as it looks.

The relentless search for the last wilderness inspired me, a desire to experience the “sublime” with the inexplicable seduction of the abyss. I wanted to explore the encounters between people and nature, playing with light, impermanence and the faculties of seeing. Working with the contrast of the black of the night and the blinding light of the 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.

Subjects become collaborators in this open-ended narrative, both experienced and directed, telling stories of life lived with a heightened sense of mortality and longing in this isolated landscape. 

While working on the project, were there any moments that stood out to you?

Working in the Mojave Desert was an amazing adventure. It is over one hundred degrees most days in the summer and I had to dig the rental car out of the sand a couple of times. For me, the extraordinary thing about this kind of work is always the people – everyone I met shared their passion for the desert and helped me understand what made it special for them. I made friends for life. It is a unique place, with fascinating and generous people.

Those I encountered have a passion for this land; the space, the silence and the unconventional grandeur. Be it ranchers or environmentalists – although they can disagree on the method – they are united by a desire to preserve one of the last vestiges of wilderness and care deeply for the desert ecosystems. There are also many people looking for spiritual answers and existential significance in the desert, and some people were on a quest for solitude, rejecting worldliness.

The desert can provide the setting to lose one’s self in order to find oneself.

Recommend us something you’re currently watching, reading, or listening to.

I’m currently reading ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead ‘by Olga Tokarczuk. It’s a dark feminist comedy thriller set in a bleak Polish Winter and an ode to William Blake.

I’d also really recommend the TV show ‘Lovecraft Country’ from Misha Green and Jordan Peele that has just finished streaming on HBO. It’s based on a cult novel that makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America come alive. It’s an extraordinary work of the imagination that blends historical fiction, pop cultural movie tropes and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy.

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has strongly influenced you.

It’s tough to pick just one but something I’ve been looking at again recently is Alessandra Sanguinetti’s long-term project with two cousins who she has photographed from childhood through adolescence and now with families of their own.

Mack books have just released ‘The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and The Illusion of an Everlasting Summer’. This work helped me to realise the power and poignancy of collaboration and how playing on the edges of documentary fiction can offer an insight into the human condition and, in this instance, the collective language of female intimacy and friendship.

‘Dinosaur Dust’ is available to purchase as a book, published by Another Place Press.

zoechilderley.co.uk / @zoechilderley