Laura Henno. Outremonde - Musée de la Photographie de Charleroi, Belgium

Laura Henno, Outre-monde: a documentary fable


For the last seven years, Laura Henno has regularly returned to Slab City to photograph and film the inhabitants and their environment, becoming familiar with some of them over time. This camp, often presented as the end of the world, is lost in the California desert, next to a military camp reverberating with test-fire and fighter plane flights, under a scorching sun, with no amenities whatsoever (no water, electricity, sanitary facilities, etc.). It was here that Laura Henno continued to make encounters and build what might be called a documentary fable. Following in the footsteps of Dorothea Lange, who photographed the Great Depression in the 1930s, but projecting onto reality a grand narrative populated by characters, Laura Henno describes while transforming those whose lives she shares. No one here has been spared, poverty, violence and drugs are taking their toll, and while children can go to school thanks to a bus service, the police make only rare incursions into this made-in-the-USA cour des miracles. And yet, as in all Laura Henno's work, the human beings remain powerful, animated as well as fragile. Nothing resembling voyeurism or a gallery of freaks. On the contrary, it captures something of the underside of the American dream: here it's religion, elsewhere it's love, and still it's hope. As with the heroes of Les Misérables, there are no good guys and bad guys, just ‘characters’ born in an America on the edge, where everyone pays dearly for their freedom. The characters in Slab City, in the midst of a nature struck by light, where survival is the main concern, go from youthful grace to the charisma of scarred faces, because here everything shifts rapidly and lives are snuffed out too quickly. Some of Laura Henno's characters, like Pastor Dave, are no longer with us, but it's a safe bet that where they are, nothing is more terrible than in Slab City. Where does this nobility and even beauty come from when the characters are so obviously anti-heroes or pioneers with compromised destinies? Wizer, Sue, little Damon, the touching Shanon and so many other veterans or fugitives form less a community than a precipitate of humanity. Taken in, cherishing their pets, tasting the water from a hot spring, tending a meagre vegetable garden, they seem to regenerate and give us the best of themselves. By scraping to the bone the humanity of each and every one of them, Laura Henno avoids any compassionate impulse and instead makes hardship the attire of the invisible actors in the story.


Michel Poivert
Text published in Photographie Ouverte n°192