It was more than a hundred degrees when Jessica first got to Slab City; she didn’t stay long, but found herself wondering who lived in the RVs, and why they chose to stay in such inhospitable conditions. She returned in October, when it was cooler and many of the part-time residents had returned. “I just felt like this was a place that I could meet really fascinating people with great stories,” she later said.
Most “Slabbers,” as the people who live there are called, have become reluctant to talk to a media that often portrays them as “weirdos, hippies and drug addicts inhabiting the lawless patch of the California desert,” as a headline in UK’s Daily Mail put it. Jessica saw an opportunity to take a different approach.
To do this, she’d need to spend enough time with the Slabbers to earn their trust. Neil Mallick, an artist she would eventually profile, remembers first seeing Jessica around Halloween, “just hanging out,” with a camera at her side but no “reporter vibe,” as he put it. He saw her again in December, when she rented an RV and lived among the Slabbers for three weeks.
Mallick described Jessica’s reporting as an “anti-process.” More likely, her approachability and genuine interest in her subjects masked that process, which was just good beat reporting. She frequented Slab City’s Oasis Club (“where the old-timers go,” Mallick says), drank coffee with them at the solar-powered Internet café, and attended community meetings. She ended up profiling a variety of people, whose lives she documented through photos, videos, and notecards she had each of them fill out. She filmed Karen Webb bathing nude in Slab City’s hot springs, and Justin Davis, a 36-year-old reliving his lost teenage years in the skate park he built in an abandoned swimming pool. She photographed “Cuervo,” “houseless on muleback for 15 years,” and chronicled the 80th birthday party of Leonard Knight, the artist who created “Salvation Mountain,” a 50-foot-high, cross-topped clay mountain that is Slab City’s most prominent landmark.
When it was time to put the project together for the website she designed and coded herself, Jessica let the dynamic personalities shape the look and feel. Visually, it’s minimal, with a simple grid of 16 boxes. Click on a box and a window pops up with more information. Sometimes it’s just a picture and an index card, usually written by the subject himself—a design element that gives the digital page a real-world feel. In a few cases, there’s a video. There’s very little about Jessica herself, which her professor, Jeremy Rue, says was intentional. She also chose to headline the page with a simple sentence: “Squatters, Snowbirds and Wanderers of Southern California’s Desert.” People who come to the site, much like the people who come to Slab City, can explore and figure it out for themselves.
Slab City Jessica’s award-winning Master’s project looked simple, but used multiple media formats to tell the stories of fourteen Slab City residents.(Jessica Lum / Courtesy of the Lum family)
Jessica had learned that her cancer had returned in October 2011, just before she was scheduled to make her first reporting trip to Slab City. She went anyway. By her final semester, however, the disease was taking its toll. There were more frequent doctor’s appointments, but she still didn’t tell her classmates or professors what was wrong, alluding only to “health problems.”
Jessica was determined to walk at graduation, though she was in so much pain she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to. She did.
“She finished strong,” Anna says.
“She finished strong,” Bob repeats.
But Jessica wasn’t finished. KPCC, a Southern California public-radio station, was expanding its multimedia team. Grant Slater, one of the station’s visual journalists, came across Jessica’s work and reached out to her. “I was really impressed by her roundness as a journalist,” he says. “It’s not often that you get somebody right out of grad school who can speak to all these mediums.”