Molly Steele is an LA-based photographer born and raised on a healthy diet of the swamps, rivers and “haunted houses and spooky trailers” that inhabit a small community in northern Florida.
A solitary childhood on her family’s herb farm, where the only action in town took place at an “intersection where people passing through stop to get fuel”, instilled in her a sense of fascination and ease within nature. Whether it’s rock-throwing youths on hidden train tracks in Paris, or a lone cactus standing to attention in a desert, a magnetic charm bleeds into everything she shoots, like light leaks on the edge of film. We caught up with Molly to hear her tales from the road.
You don’t appear to have that fear that many people do of being alone in isolated places. What does scare you?
I’ll let you in on a big secret. I’m actually an extremely fearful person, and travelling alone in isolated places triggers that. I look over my shoulder a lot in the woods, my body tightens up at every shuffle of leaves outside my tent, every car pulling over nearby. Some of my favourite places I’ve been are also linked to extreme fear. My fear is often of coming across a solo man out in the woods and out of reception… I feel less afraid of bears than men. Another fear, especially when travelling, alone is getting my car stuck. An old Mercedes 240D is not a 4×4 Subaru, let’s face it, but I drive it hard. And perhaps a more existential fear is being forgotten.
Can you tell me a bit about your first or favourite camera?
My favourite camera ever, which I’ve used consistently for the last five years, is my Nikon F3. This is a solid photojournalist’s tool as it’s a real resilient piece of machinery. This may sound strange, but I don’t like to learn my cameras, I like to feel them working with me like bodily organs functioning together seamlessly.
Was there ever a shot that got away?
There are too many. This is something every photographer should tackle head-on, myself included. The shots that get away eat at you like rust on an old car. They’re the shots you see from a distance or in a moment that gut you, and if that’s not a sign that you need to take the photo, I don’t know what is. I’m an extremely low impact photographer, and by that I mean I strive to be as unobtrusive as possible, so I often struggle with consent when it comes to taking photos of strangers. I hope I slap this out of myself one day and get the damn shots. I’m a work in progress.
Where’s the one place in the world that you’ve been that’s really resonated with you?
I feel lucky to find that in many places I’ve travelled to. Whether it’s in the middle of a ghetto in Milan on a sticky summer night, watching my friends who squat in apartments there play in the street with neighbourhood kids, or in the Basque Country where things are so old you can really feel something from the voices in the canyons. I had a particularly moving experience at La ZAD in France—the ten-year land occupation protesting the building of a commercial airport. It’s a large-scale project of people who are looking to build another world. There’s no way for me to describe it briefly, but I implore everyone to look it up.
What photo of yours has a backstory you’d most like to tell?
A couple of years ago I spent some time living with a man named Cuervo out near the Salton Sea. Though he lives near the famous Slab City, he isolates himself and lives with his two mules in a mud hut he built under a large desert tree. His whole dwelling and outdoor space aren’t visible from the road as this tree acts like an invisibility cloak for him. One evening Cuervo asked if I’d like to go to the local hot spring for a bath. I rode his mule Pinky as he led us through the desert on a route of his that he knew well. Cuervo, who always travels with a mobile speaker playing oldies, danced and sung as we travelled to the hot spring. When we arrived, many dusty locals were bathing while others stood around. Cuervo, who is generally shirtless with a long kilt and special shin-guards he wears over his boots to protect him from snake bites, stripped down to his bare skin before plunging into the hot spring by way of a cannonball. Afterwards, still naked, we all danced around the mules with the speaker blaring. There’s a photo of Cuervo from that moment. I could tell you so much more, but this is enough to start.
Travel should make a person…
Empathetic, patient, self-aware and curious.
What was the last thing that got you excited about your work?
In February of 2017 I put together my first ever photo zine published by The Deadbeat Club. After many years of building up a directionless archive it was my first experience in self-editing and seeing my images come together in a body of work. It’s something I can hold in my hand and be proud of. Inside the zine I included a personal handwritten letter to accompany the work. It’s meant to be personal, and I think to see my work without emotion or a feeling of intimacy is to miss the point. I made 300 and they all sold out pretty quickly, which was a snack of affirmation for the ego.
What’s the most life-altering thing you’ve encountered on your travels?
I took a trip in April of 2016 that shattered my vision of the world, and I’m still working on the rebuild. I was heartbroken over the loss of a potential relationship. So, in true Molly fashion, I went head first into a spontaneous adventure that led me to fly to New Orleans where I caught a freight train with my friend Beau. We rode through the night on a track that has water on both sides, and under the light of the full moon we climbed to the top of the train and lay on our backs. The train brought us to a rainy Alabama which led to hitchhiking to Atlanta where we walked through an industrial area and through a security gate with a name to ask for.
Once on the lot, we found an old warehouse that had young radicals pouring in and out of the building, eating a communal lunch. I only knew Beau at the time, but I met many people that would heavily impact the rest of my life. The next day was a big battle to stop a KKK rally at a historic place called Stone Mountain where there is a lot of Confederate history and many monuments. The day was spent running through the woods, clad in black, masked. Cops at every turn. It was a day of great success, but my continued relationship with those I shared that experience with led me to detach myself from my life and enter their world for several months. I will never look at relationships or support the same way again.
What do you hope your images communicate to those who see them?
I hope my work communicates that there is another way out there. When you’re stuck in a personal drama or cyclical thinking about your current environment, search out access to fantasy, play with that. There is so much more to living than what we find ourselves wrapped up in, and I hope my work is mobilising on that front.
What advice would you give a young kid who wants to follow a similar path to yours?
Be mindful of distractions. Love is a fool’s errand. Start on a small path, challenge yourself, learn about who you are. It’s you that will create your work, not your camera, not your subjects. Archive your negatives right off the bat, don’t wait until you have thousands of rolls and no system.
Upcoming plans or resolutions?
I want to walk away from my life as I currently know it. No more city, no more compromises. I want a pitchfork and clean water. I want birthday cakes and challenges. I want many lovers, a new environment. Hoping it all brings me to a new place with my art and my life.