East of Jesus

Rhombie Sandoval

Our feature today focuses on the promising young photographer Rhombie Sandoval. She is a photographer we have been following for some time, and as such we are greatly pleased to share her work today.

Sandoval, normally based in Los Angeles, California, is currently artist-in-residence in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland. She is traveling the Fjords of East Iceland to tell the stories of those who call Austurland — the Eastern region — home.

Today we share her project East of Jesus. Sandoval’s portraits are full of magic, brewed from a beautiful control of the wonderful American light and the ability to forge great connections with the fantastical characters she meets and photographs in places like the off-grid community Slab City, which seem so far-away and different for many.

And yet there is something familiar about the people she photographs; in the woman clothed in the wedding dress and worn brown sandals, arms thrust back as if she is a white bird about to take off into the migrating warm sun; in the nude couple so entwined it’s difficult to tell where one begins and another ends — maybe they are one person; in the sweet picture of the tattooed boy and his sleepy, smiling dog.

There’s an intimacy and vulnerability that we see that many of us know and have experienced or felt. In photographing others, we find ourselves. In Sandoval’s work, we’ve felt this greatly — do you?


When I was eight, I started going to a camp for children with congenital heart disease — Camp Del Corazon. My mother always packed a disposable camera in my bag. One year when I picked up my glossy 4x6 prints from CVS, one picture sparked my interest.

Soon after I was photographed by Max Gerber for his book My Heart vs The Real World. Max also has congenital heart disease, so the opportunity for me to see someone in similar shoes, doing something he loved, was really important.

While he loaded film into his camera I asked him about it — he handed me his Hasselblad and explained how it worked.

Years later I was granted the opportunity to participate in Make A Wish. My first Wish Granter asked what I wanted; while my brother whispered in my ear, “a jet ski”, I told them I wanted to travel.

When they left I canceled the Wish. It felt like it was only happening because having heart disease was a “negative” thing. They sent another Make A Wish granter, John, who asked me, “if you could have anything that could change your life, what would it be?” I answered, “a camera.”

When I started studying photography, I had received a package from Max; it was the Hasselblad he had photographed me with. A couple of months ago I was loading film when a young girl, Moira, asked me what I was doing. I handed her my camera and began to explain how it worked.

She made a portrait of me and I made one of her, and she offered to show me around her hometown. I am currently saving money to visit her and her family in Switzerland — I plan to arrive with a camera for her.

That glossy 4x6 photograph is still framed in my home.

What is it about people that draws you to them, that makes you want to document and photograph them?

I am drawn to people because I believe in their ability to inspire, educate, and leave the world a better place. I treat everyone I meet as a teacher. For me it is an honor to hear someone’s story.

It is easy to judge someone, but by listening you give yourself an opportunity to see yourself in another. I photograph people because I want others to see the ways in which we relate in their experience of life. Every portrait I make of a stranger becomes a self-portrait.

My camera is a tool to learn about myself through others.

Tell us about your project East of Jesus.

East of Jesus is a body of work I made during my time in Slab City. Slab City is often described as the last free place to live in the United States. Often people travel here to experience living life off grid; people of all different backgrounds, who seek a sense of community and solitude in the Slabs.

There is sometimes an association of “running away” when you seek life off the grid, but I feel that it is often misunderstood, as those I met were often running to their own happiness.

While I was in college I couldn’t travel as much as I wanted to, so I began photographing people that were traveling via craigslist ride share. Dan was looking for a ride to Slab City so I decided to take him. That was the first of many trips my Volvo station wagon took along Highway 111; it eventually died on Highway 111 as well.

When we arrived, Dan introduced me to everyone at East Jesus. I drove to Slab City every weekend after that, and I eventually had my own designated trailer to stay in at East Jesus. Slab City showed me the importance of staying for an extended amount of time.

There’s a transition that happens from tourist to local that allows me to have multiple places to call home. An off-grid lifestyle has always been something that attracts my attention, but so do many other lifestyles.

There are so many lifestyles to learn about and from, that I want to keep learning and absorbing the parts of each that I enjoy most.

Are there any experiences that really stand out in your time photographing?

A couple of years ago I had a one way ticket to Florida. I was going to sail to the Dry Tortugas with friends from Slab City. Two weeks before my flight I was attacked by a dog. As the dog flew towards my face, I quickly put my arm up. It felt like I was being attacked by a snake, he kept lunging and sinking his teeth into my arm.

The day of my flight to Florida I was in the hospital having surgery because my arm became infected. I then spent 6 months in physical therapy learning how to straighten and strengthen my arm again.

It was the lowest I felt in my life because I couldn’t hold my camera. It became difficult to sleep as every dream would be about a dog attacking someone important to me.

At this point in my life, I had stopped going to Slab City because of all the dogs.

Before coming to Iceland I decided to pursue having my heart valve replaced. It had been seventeen years and I wanted to arrive in Iceland ready to try and experience anything new.

Growing up with heart disease created an emotional fear of hospitals. It became this adventure of forcing myself to no longer be controlled by my fears.

The first thing leading up to my surgery would be an MRI. During the MRI you are given an emergency stop, which I pressed countless times during my prior one.

All I could think about were the photographs I wanted to make in Iceland, the stories I wanted to hear. As the MRI began I threw the emergency stop out of my reach; that’s where I feel like I began changing.

When I turned my phone on after my surgery I received pictures from inside the operating room. Apparently I had asked a doctor to let me make portraits as I was succumbing to the anesthesia.

I returned to Slab City and decided, for the first time, to simply sleep on the ground outside.

Even though I was afraid of a dog attacking me, I finally experienced what I had missed every night I slept in a trailer. The stars shot across the sky and I once again felt at home.

Being attacked by a dog granted me an opportunity to grow in immense ways. I fought to hold my camera and to regain a new way of viewing any situation that feels like it can stop you.

Photography has shown me that when you really love something, you’ll face your fears to keep it in your life.

You often shoot in film — what is it about film that draws you to it time and time again?

Growing up my parents always drove the longest route to our destination. It was important to them that they taught my brother and I to not rush things in life.

It is something that I greatly admire about them, as it has made an impact on the way I photograph people. The process of photographing a stranger with film is equivalent to dancing for me.

My Mamiya feels like an extension of my hand. The weight of it feels durable, like it is a tool with a responsibility to uphold. Film makes me slow down and listen; each frame an opportunity to convey someone’s story.

In order to understand a portion of another’s story you must slow down and listen. It is a process that can not be rushed. For me, film is driving the long way home.

You’re just about to leave for another stint in Iceland, can you tell us more about that?

I am returning to Iceland to continue my project Heima. “Heima” is Icelandic for “home”. This body of work consists of portraits of those who have made me feel at home in Iceland.

I am also working with the marketing of East Iceland on a new campaign, and together we are telling the stories of Austurland through portraiture and landscapes.

While in Iceland I have my residency as my home base while I am working. This is my second time back to Heima. It is important for me to be surrounded by so many creative people; it makes a huge difference in my work.

In terms of a applying to residencies, my advice is to do as much research in advance as possible.

What are you recommending?

Reading

  • You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life — Jen Sincero
  • The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness — Pema Chödrön
  • The Quarter-Life Breakthrough by Adam Powswolsky

Listening

Watching

Finally, tell us about an artist who inspires you and why.

Richard Renaldi’s photographs have inspired me over the years. The concept and connection he captures through his body of work Touching Strangers is incredibly beautiful to me.

When I was traveling the states I came through New Orleans, and a photographer asked to make our portrait with his 4x5. As he photographed us, he explained this portrait was for Renaldi’s workshop.

We left after, driving four hours west. That night I researched Renaldi’s workshop, realising he was giving a lecture in New Orleans in the morning.

We woke up early and drove back to New Orleans; I made it just in time for the beginning of his lecture. His photographs and passion for his subjects will always inspire me.

rhombie.com