The photography studio with four wheels and a sunroof: Adali Schell’s best shot

<span>On the way to Santa Paula … the road trip from LA in an old Merc.</span><span>Photograph: Adali Schell/Sony World Photography Awards</span>
On the way to Santa Paula … the road trip from LA in an old Merc.Photograph: Adali Schell/Sony World Photography Awards

Los Angeles is a city dominated by cars. Neighbourhoods are divided by highways that were constructed to cut certain communities off. The idea that LA is a superficial place arose from each of us being in our own automobile bubble, not having face-to-face interactions. As a photographer, I always felt stifled in the car. I had an itch to be outside. But I was thinking about how I could use the car as part of my work. Eventually I realised it could be a mobile studio, with sunroof, windows, tail and headlights. I drive a 1983 Mercedes that was my dad’s for 20 years. I bought it off him two years ago. It runs on vegetable oil that I “dumpster dive” for, from restaurants throughout LA. So not only am I driving for free through the city, I’m also producing fewer emissions. It’s my way of surviving in a car-centred society.

There are so many examples of really, really good car photos: Mike Mandel’s shots of people driving cars, Henry Wessel’s work on traffic, Nan Goldin’s Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, Bruce Davidson’s couple intertwined in the back of a car. I intentionally wanted to address that American tradition, but making it about the inside more than the outside of the car – the vehicle is the destination.

Car ownership in LA, where I grew up, is hugely divisive. Between the ages of 14 and 17, I lived in the suburbs. I had few friends and struggled with the social climate of the area. It was a very lonely time. I used to take the Metrolink train into the city to photograph what was available to me, which turned out to be Angelenos on public streets. I would go to dense parts of LA, like downtown and Hollywood, and take candid photos of strangers.

It’s from a series about my friends and their first cars – and how we reconnected with one another following the isolation of the pandemic

But street photography wasn’t what I wanted to do. Once I had the friends I’d always longed for, I realised what I wanted to do was talk about my life and my relationships, to be intimate in a way street photography isn’t. Now I photograph what I know – and what I know is my dad’s old Mercedes, its old leather seats, the sound of its shoddy speakers, the hum of the engine, the faces of my friends, the way they move and smile. And for that, I am grateful.

In the summer of 2022, I began the series this image belongs to. It was originally shot as my first assignment, The First Car, for the New York Times. The series is about my friends and their first cars, and how we’ve managed to come back into touch with one another through our automobiles following the isolation of the pandemic.

When you’re 20, it’s awesome to have your first car, loaded up with friends, playing music, going on a road trip. In this, we were going to Santa Paula, winding through incredible mountain scenery, surrounded by orange groves and rocky cliffs. We were just descending from the mountain as the sun trickled through the car windows. I was screaming because it was so beautiful. When I looked back and saw my friends Victoria and Keni, with the wind rustling their clothes and blowing through their hair, it was perfect! The pictures look candid, but I was directing a lot. The series is now being made into a book, with an exhibition due in Beverly Hills next year.

Photographing youth is challenging, because it’s so fleeting. I’m still in my 20s and in some ways it’s already past me. This isn’t a sustainable project – 20 years from now, I’m definitely not going to be photographing teens in their first cars. But that’s part of this work’s beauty and ripeness.

Adali Schell’s CV

Born: Los Angeles, California, 2001.
Trained: University of California, Los Angeles.
Influences:Lise Sarfati, Mike Brodie, Nan Goldin”
High point: “Realising and creating this body of work with photo editor Eve Lyons two summers ago.”
Low point: “Returning to school and normal life following the assignment.”
Top tip: “Make pictures only you can make.”

Adali Schell won second place in the portraiture category, professional competition, Sony world photography awards 2024, showing at Somerset House, London, until 6 May