The Last Free Place

  • Photography and Text   Teri Havens


For three years I lived part-time in Slab City, a squatters’ community located on a desolate swath of southern California’s Sonoran desert, wedged between the Salton Sea and an active bombing range. Since shortly after World War II, ‘The Slabs’ have been a refuge for drifters, dropouts, artists, outlaws and other cultural dissidents who settle alongside the addicted and the elderly on the concrete foundations of an abandoned military base.

The first time I crossed the railroad tracks that divide the town of Niland from the autonomous frontier of The Slabs, the early summer sun was already riding high, not so much illuminating as overexposing the sepia-toned landscape. A couple of ragged dogs were foraging lethargically in the heat. A distant drone of generators. Flies. I set up camp on the edge of a shallow wash and settled into the languid pace of Slab life. There was a gentle rhythm to the days; the openness of the desert allowed for expansion – a dreamy, almost luxurious escape from expectation and ambition.

Slab City is a collection of fiercely independent, utterly original individuals. Cast out of, or just drifting away from, the ‘American Dream’, they come here seeking freedom from rules, rent, and the assaults of a society often unsympathetic to the underclass. Some are victims of poverty, of bad choices and bad luck. Others have renounced the ‘material world’, refusing to trade their time for money; many simply yearn for the sense of freedom that comes from vast open spaces. And though desert life can be extremely harsh, and in truth there is little freedom in poverty, here they find love and strength within a community that accepts and nurtures the individuality of its members.

Inspired by the early images of the disenfranchised, as depicted by the Works Progress Administration photographers of the 1930’s, I began a series of portraits documenting the people of Slab City. Using available light, film and traditional printmaking methods, I attempt to capture the constant universal tension between hope and resignation, between community and isolation.


Tommy, 2006
Paul, 2008
Jerry with Turtles, 2006
Frankie, 2006
Charlotte, 2008
Bird, 2008
Richard’s Camp, 2006


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