The conquest

by Mélanie Desriaux

America. The one place that intrigues and compels us all equally; sometimes beguiling, often extraordinary and quite scary.

The Wild West, despite the glorification constantly handed out by Hollywood, was a terrifying and lawless hot hell, and it’s the original discovery of the American West that intrigues French photographer Mélanie Desriaux.

In her project The conquest she follows the Oregon Trail, the original road leading from East to West that is so famous it has its own game.

For many of us photographers, the “road trip” — whether completed by car, by bike, by foot or other means — is a rite of passage that opens us up to a diverse and intense experience, good and bad and all sorts, which change us and develop us as people as well as in our work.

Desriaux’s work and story reminds us of the reasons we love to photograph; to seek out those — people and places — who intrigue us, to tell their stories and the feeling we get when they let us photograph them as we see them.

The adventure, the uncertainty and shock of meeting people with cultures so different to our own, yet somehow familiar. The feeling of following in the footsteps of countless people before us, from the first step hundreds of years ago.

Read our interview with her:

I was born in La Rochelle, France, in 1981. Right now I live between Paris and Lyon.

A year ago, I decided to focus on my research and to work for publishing houses. It is not easy to find the right balance between photography and the essential things in life, especially when making images is necessary. I’m interested in the vernacular of photography, especially images that talk about “otherness”.

I like photography that turns the standard narrative of documentary inside out, and takes you on an adventure.

What’s your story?

I graduated from the School of Fine Arts (Rennes, France, 2006), and subsequently completed a higher competitive exam in visual arts with photography as a major subject (Aix-en-Provence, France, 2010). This year, I graduated with a Masters in Philosophy in fine art publishing (Saint-Étienne, France, 2017).

I grew up close to the arts; my mother went to the school of decorative arts and my father is also passionate about photography. I got my first camera, a Minolta Freedom 100, when I was ten years old. My studies, my meetings and my travels have forged and developed my way of making images.

Please tell us about ‘The conquest’.

A first trip to the United States and the discovery of Calamity Jane’s letters is what inspired this project, The conquest. The project is about the Oregon Trail, which was the first road to the discovery of the American West — which the well-known American female legend Calamity Jane also crossed.

I chose to visit America because of this legendary road, and also because for me it is the country of possibilities; bursting with incredible landscapes and people who are not afraid to be photographed.

In the 19th century, the United States split in to two parts. It was the time of the American Frontier; In the East, migrants went towards the towns, and in the West, Amerindian tribes lived in the wilderness.

I would suggest that, in an age where everything has been charted, every frontier has been crossed – the only discovery left is inside the image itself.

This topic intrigued me. So, by taking the road it’s looking for the wild, the changing landmarks and customs, it’s re-evaluating perceptions, it’s facing one’s fear to reveal the outlines of what limits us.

Three elements brought me to Calamity Jane: a book belonging to my parents, on the Conquest of the West; a joke with my friends in which they compared me to a cowgirl; and my photographic work which questions the concept of conquest.

I love adventure and being on the road. So, I looked for the figure of an important woman and I discovered the life of Calamity Jane. It was an intense time, because I found in her various images and memories that upset me — the figure of a mother, an adventurer who follows her own desires, and the abandonment of her daughter.

I had lost my mother a few years before. Some passages of the letters Calamity Jane wrote to her daughters could have been written by own my mother.

You focus a lot on the people and the landscapes around them. What is it about people that make you want to photograph them? Is landscape important to depict the people?

I photograph people who intrigue me and who make sense with the stories I want to tell. These people attract me often because I recognise a part of myself in them. “Otherness” is the heart of my work.

Travelling is a reason to meet others, and the landscapes they inhabit lends them their colours. Those two factors allow me to make stories. I often feel that my life is a film in which I’m the only one to ignore the concept that to depict people is to also go through the mirror and face my own reality.

What are you recommending?

I often read, watch or listen to things close to my work or my mood. So, it’s very personal. But I can recommend authors like Maylis de Kerangal for her photographic point of view, Jim Harrison for his description of the American landscape.

I don’t have television; I watch movies in the cinema or online. The last one that left its mark on me was American Honey. I listen to many alternative radios to discover music. Guitar Solo No.5 of the Dead Man soundtrack played by Neil Young upsets me.

Tell us about an artist who inspires you and why.

The photobook Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson inspires me; this book, as in his work generally, walks the fine line between fiction and nonfiction. It’s a disturbingly beautiful narrative about the contrast and togetherness of the land and unfathomable violence. The photography in his book reference genres such as photojournalism, forensic photography, image appropriation, re-enactment and documentary landscape. In it, Patterson also utilises and experiments with archival material and deliberately mixes fact and fiction, past and present, myth and reality.

What are you up to next?

I intend to continue the work on the Oregon Trail, and the people with whom I kept in touch. I’m also working on new work about a set made in Saint-Étienne in France, but I won’t talk too much about it because this work is unfinished. It will question important meetings, the landscape and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.