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This week, we’re featuring a desert road trip photo essay from photographer Valerian Ponsero. Valerian captured the vast desert landscapes on 35mm film and even filmed his adventures. Check out the images below, and be sure to scroll the end to watch the film of his time in Arizona.
Hi, I’m Valerian, a 27 years old boom operator working in cinema and television, and living in the rainy and windy French city of Brest (try to read this article with the French accent in mind, just for fun).
When I’m not on a set, I’m wandering here and there, hiking in the wild, seeking views, stories, and adventures to share through film photography and short movies.
Back in 2019, I planned to visit my sister, living in Tucson, Arizona. I felt the need to escape from rainy November and to reach the dusty heat of the American southwest.
The French west coast doesn’t lack moody sceneries, but I had never felt a true isolation or remoteness in the wild before. Although well preserved, natural landscapes are fairly small in my region. Even whipped by the heather winds, surrounded by mossy trees or feet stuck in a boggy marsh, you can still hear a plane above, a truck whistle echoing or spot a lone house in the landscape. You can’t get lost.
Wandering in Arizona, Southern California, and New Mexico was an opportunity to experience wide and infinite landscapes, to feel lost and weak, facing a wilderness that can be dangerous for humans. I felt the lure of the desert.
Two months before flying to Tucson, I bought my first serious film camera. At the time, I already owned a little rangefinder (an AGFA Silette), but I intended to purchase a sturdy SLR.
I met with a woman who was selling her brother’s old camera. “He used to be a photojournalist for a local newspaper,” she said. He must have cared for his work tool, because it was still in great condition.
Leaving France, I had in my hiking bag a Canon AE-1 with its 50mm f1.4 loaded with Fuji Xtra 400 film.
As a filmmaking enthusiast, I already knew before my flight that I wanted to film and shoot photographs to document this travel.
For the first few days of my trip, I was overwhelmed by a “tourist” excitement. But while lost among saguaro cactuses and Joshua trees, a completely different feeling slowly creeped in. And soon, I started oscillating between childish amazement and jaded gloominess.
Staring at the desert infinity, I felt utterly alone. Alone because I couldn’t sit next to my loved ones, as the sunset created a true Arizonian light show (did you know that the state flag pictures a sunset over the Colorado river?). To fill that void, I started writing letters to the girls I dated, a decision that reshaped my photography journey.
Eventually, it appeared that shooting film was the best option to tell this side of my story. The grain, the look, dust and scratches, were perfect to convey this nostalgia in this exploration diary (I even tried to emulate an 8mmor 16mm feel in the movie color grading).
When I left France, I was just planning on hiking and taking some pictures. I hadn’t expected to be filled with a desire to tell my journey through a road trip movie, dealing with themes such as wandering, homesickness, and film photography.
What is the sound of emptiness? Along and quiet oooooooh or sssshhhh as a light breeze whistles through desolated canyons and dunes?
You wouldn’t be completely wrong. But the desert has much more to offer. Sometimes the surroundings are so peaceful that you can hear the pounding of your blood in your ears. Suddenly a crow call tears the heavy silence. Its echo bouncing across the landscape gives you a sense of infinity and remoteness.
Some names speak by themselves here. Visiting Chiricahua’s Echo Canyon trail took me through a rocky church organ, where a single red tailed hawk shriek can bounce almost for two seconds. Or, as I struggled climbing Mojave Desert’s Kelso Singing Dunes, some of my steps made the surface sand shifts, producing a strange low drum rattling.
It turns out these southwestern deserts are inhabited voids. Canyons are narrow amphitheaters where cicadas and snakes are rattling, birds chirping and coyotes howling.
I could see evidence of their passage everywhere around me: tracks in the sand, nests on the top of cactuses, white bones scattered in the dust… But because I’m a weird hairless tall animal to them, I was quickly spotted and avoided.
Only some daring ones wanted to satisfy their curiosity. As I climbed a hoodoo, a Mexican Jay chirped to me. He had been following me for about half an hour, always staying out of reach. But there, he landed on the top of this rock, close to me, and we shared the view upon the Chiricahuas in silence. As we were wearing the same color, I guess we became somehow friends.
The US Southwest is packed with barren lands. The more miles I hike through steppes and deserts, the more I got used to its sense of implacable death.
Where I’m from, November is grey, and to celebrate the “All Saints” day, people bring flowers to the graveyard wearing raincoats with hoods that shelter their solemn faces.
But there, Death is somewhat angled with life. El Dià de los Muertos is sad but noisy, colorful, creative, and festive. In Tucson, the “All Souls” procession smells like street food and sounds like a mix of Mariachi’s music, chanted slogans, and street percussion. Rapidly, I found myself sized in a tornado of lanterns, colorful collages, and clothes.
After ten days of wandering in the heart and a last strenuous hike through the musical loose sand of the Kelso Dunes, I finished my last roll in this sunset land, at dusk, focusing on the delicate detail of a tiny bush flower.
I think it epitomizes my journey through these magnificent landscapes: before these infinite voids and these stone giants, I felt tiny and fragile as this bud. Truly, I had everything to be amazed and fulfilled, exploring places that I’ve only seen on screen, making discoveries at each step with a camera in hand.
Yet, I couldn’t help but feel a gentle sadness rising inside me as the sun slowly set onto the desert. What was the value of such beauty if not shared with the ones I loved?
One could ask if filmmaking and taking photographs is a genuine way to travel and experience new places.
There were times, during my journey, where I got a little bit jaded with my own cinematography indeed. Something quite close to a kind of impostor syndrome, maybe. But rediscovering these pictures a year later, got my answer: it was worthy, for sure.
They’re not just memory tokens, they allow the audience to experience the cicadas crepitating sound, the dusty sweaty skin feel, and, above all, the sense of wild and infinite appeal of these places. With these pictures and this movie, I try to convey feelings.
Through this introspective journey, I markedly improved my skills and learnt from my errors… Some negatives lack density, I’ve shot an entire blank roll (sadly, I haven’t brought back any saguaro shot)…
For sure, this project has shaped my cinematography, my writing, and photography in a way I will carry on.