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Dream for Sale – People Living in a Lost Place

The largest lake in California has a person thinking of lush green landscapes with a rich flora and fauna. It was the desert-like surroundings that struck me most when I first arrived there. Ruinous houses everywhere, old piers indicate former water levels, stranded boats now only fit for scrap, inhabitants that seem a lot less euphoric than the postcards from the 1950’s promised.  Wandering around in this wasteland words like desolate and barren come to mind. Why do people hold on to this place? For what reason do they stay and fight against nature although there is no recovery in sight?

The American Dream is a theoretical construct which serves as the basis upon which an entire system of beliefs was built. Independence, freedom, the possibility to cultivate land and the conviction to be able to achieve everything by hard work are at the core. These agents have beckoned people to the new world for centuries. At times the American Dream can be adventurous, even hazardous. It may appear to be a path gone astray, even to be a lost cause. Considering the frontier spirit one might critically bring into question at which point holding on to a chosen path turns into an aberration. Does a secluded life in a desert qualify as a dream come true?

Dream for Sale is a story about people living in a lost place. Salton Sea, in the midst of a desert, is a saltlake surrounded by a hostile environment. Originally, the Salton Sink was a part of the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. It was separated by sediments of the Colorado River. Thus, Lake Cahuilla was created. Due to the climate it dried up hundred of years ago. In 1905 a dam of the Colorado River broke.  For two years the river changed its course and emptied itself into the deepest point of the Salton Sink. The largest lake of California, Salton Sea, was born.

During the 1950’s major touristic development plans existed for Salton Sea. Investors became interested, infrastructure was built, even celebrities took part in its promotion. Plenty of lots were sold and the area experienced a great boom. Many people from the surrounding cities like Los Angeles or San Diego spent their vacations at the lake. Boat races became popular and a sport fishing scene was established due to best weather conditions and a broad variety of marine life. There were numerous motels and even a golf court. An ever-growing number of celebrities from Hollywood attracted more and more people.

The idyll did not last long, however. In the mid-1970’s two tropical storms swept across the area. Since Salton Sea does not have an outlet they bursted its banks considerably. Many buildings close to the shore were flooded and essentially destroyed. The initial elation to create a French Rivera in California was ruined.

Because of the devastation, long term ecological problems grew as well. In the following years, the water quality consistently declined and the salinity rose. As a result, several mass die-offs of fish and birds occurred in the 1990’s. Nowadays only one species -The Nile Tilapia-  is able to survive in the water conditions. Furthermore, over decades the lake evolved into a wildlife refuge for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, which are now also endangered. The lake’s water supply is fed by three rivers, which first provide freshwater for the surrounding fields, take the agricultural run off and finally find their way into the lake.

Over the years large amounts of heavy metals have accumulated on the bottom of the lake due to agricultural fertilizers usage. These heavy metals are not too dangerous while underwater, but due to a slow drying up of the lake, more and more of the lake’s bed is exposed. The wind picks up the soil and through the airborne heavy metals air quality is lowered. The area’s child-asthma-ratio is up to three times higher in comparison to the rest of the United States.

Salton Sea dries up because of the hot climate. Additionally, the lake suffers from a reduction in the water supply system. In the near future, the drying-up is expected to fasten its pace due to a new regional water contract. The agricultural runoff is supposed to be transferred to San Diego from 2018 on. The main water supply of the lake will be cut off and the fight over water will heat up in this highly-indebted state during the biggest drought ever.

Today a lot of houses in the area are vacant – a place where plans for the future and their decline are omnipresent. A vast infrastructure had been constructed, the horizon is spiked with power lines, but only isolated homes were built. A dream of an eternal vacation turned into a collecting pond for dropouts and outcasts of America`s prosperous society. The motivation of these people are manifold, some of them stay there because of the sheer lack of alternatives, some of them because they believe in a dream deferred. But at their core, the qualities which are inherent in the American Dream are what drive these people: Persistence, independence and freedom. Surrounded by a hostile environment these people exist in a place doomed by the workings of nature, constantly struggling to survive by the faith in their own will. A situation which ironically mirrors the situation of the first settlers. In contrast, the inhabitants of Salton Sea do not fight the uncultivated wilderness but the leftovers of civilization itself. Dream for Sale portraits their life.

When I first came to Salton Sea, I was surprised how lonely and run-down everything was. It took me some time to get used to the surroundings. I was amazed by the spacious landscape and the huge gaps between houses.  I was lucky to stay with Kerry and Giovanni, a couple working for an NGO to save the Sea. They showed me around and helped me to get in touch with people. Almost every person I met was extraordinary kind to me, very warm and welcoming.

Most days I got up early and just got going driving around aimlessly. I captured whatever struck me most. Sometimes I got out of the car and wandered around in the wilderness to find images or just to explore my surroundings. Other times though, time just passed with me sitting in the shadow. It might even have felt like boredom sometimes if it wasn’t for the sense of adventure that had touched me. Desert life, I guess.

I had a general idea (a rough draft of a topic) a place to stay, a car and time. During the month I spent in Southern California my rough idea became more concrete. I tried to capture more and more of what made this imposing landscape feel so desolate: environmental influences, decline, signs and symbols of the ever-growing desert –but also life. The people who live there because of and those who live there despite of the land. Historic relics of what life there might have become like, if things would have worked out differently. It became my intent to portrait the very rough and very delicate connection between the inhabitants and the place that is Salton Sea today.

The most difficult part of the creation process is after having photographed and being home again, to select the right pictures and find a good order. In this process everything is possible. Sometimes you need to kill your darlings to make the whole story work. The whole effect of the series has a higher value than the sum of the single picture. I spent about a month abroad in California. If you go out every day and take pictures, there are quite a few when you return home. The difficult part is to reduce it and find a selection that works. Even though you have to kick out pictures you like to make the whole story work for itself.


Martin Lamberty

Martin Lamberty studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences and Art in Dortmund, Germany and graduated in summer 2016.

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