Edouard Sepulchre recounts the six months spent cycling across the deserts and arid landscapes of North Africa and the Middle East.
There’s something wonderfully magical about the desert. From the steep sand dunes to the scorching weather, it represents one of earth’s most hostile landscapes, in which very little can actually survive, yet it also contains some of nature’s purest beauty. It’s as if you’re experiencing the world in its rawest and most extreme form, which was a way of making us feel very human.
For Edouard Sepulchre, these arid landscapes bring about feelings of the unfinished and the in-between. “The desert brings you silence, visual and mental rest,” he explains. The Parisian photographer has long been drawn into this emptiness, which gives way to a projection space where you can create any world you’d like – giving the impression of being like a god. “You focus exclusively on your feelings and your imagination,” he adds. “Over time, you become addicted to this form of meditation.”
Intrigued by the idea of Oasis, Edouard first set off to cycle the lyrical landscapes of Morocco back in 2017. “I realized that there was something I was interested in and I had to pull the red line to see where it led me,” he says. He’s always loved exploring the unknown, so after Morocco hooked him in, he decided to traverse the deserts of Iran, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan.
In total, Edouard spent six months on the road documenting the disparate landscapes, small villages, peculiar characters and unique sensations he encountered along the way. The result is Dryland, a collection of seemingly imaginary lands where everything is possible and time seems to have completely stopped in its tracks. Between the vast sky, sand and mountains, you can see faint evidence of human interaction in the form of seemingly abandoned buildings, travelling merchants and the odd road sign.
In fact, Edouard would often cycle for hundreds of kilometres at a time and only cross paths with a couple of cars or a few camels. “When something happens in the desert, it’s immediately highlighted,” says Edouard. “Visually, it’s interesting and you concentrate only on the essential.” This is especially true when travelling by bicycle because you move at just the right speed to take everything in. “It offers the right rhythm,” he says. “My imagination is stimulated because the landscapes scroll at the pace of a movie tracking shot.” All this while sometimes covering hundreds of kilometres in a single day.
These wild cycling adventures also tend to alert Edouard’s senses. He’s aware of the wind, the temperature and the movements that are powering his momentum. “The journey becomes rich with a taste of adventure,” he says. “You put your body to work, you’re proud of yourself and you just feel alive.”
Some of the most memorable moments along the journey came with his encounters with the local population. “On a bike, you naturally attract kind people,” he says. “You’re like a magnet with them, especially when you’re alone. The curious and generous ones want to talk with you.” In turn, Edouard was able to capture several captivating portraits of the face he met along the way. “In terms of hospitality, it was with the Berbers and the Balochs that I was most welcomed,” he adds.
Edouard specifically pinpoints a moment in the small town of Khur in Isfahan Province in Iran, where he stopped to take a photo of a street corner with lights strung across the road and the sun’s final rays of the day setting upon the buildings. During this time, he noticed that a wedding party was taking place nearby. “Soon enough, these two men came out into the street to offer me food and drink,” he recalls. “A few minutes later I was invited to join them in the house.”
A cycling journey naturally facilitates human contact in ways that other journeys can’t. Planes and cars tend to amputate our senses and cut off our relationship with the outside world. There’s something special about watching the landscapes gradually shift before your eyes and watching objects on the horizon magnify as you approach – and shrink again as you fade into the distance. “When you arrive, all that matters is eating and having a good night, while waiting for the early morning the next day,” adds Edouard.
He also found himself fighting misconceptions about these supposedly dangerous regions. Even as a solo traveller, however, Edouard never felt a sense of insecurity and even felt that he could rely on the locals he encountered. “Travel allows us to grasp the reality in its entirety because we need to see the places to fully understand them,” he adds. “Otherwise, things remain abstract and dictated by what we’ve heard or see on TV.”
The desert is a territory that’s paradoxically empty, but rich in symbols. The dramatic landscapes and surprising encounters with the people of the Maghreb and the Middle East serve as a testament to that. Edouard’s journey has taken him through the rich-coloured Atlas and anti-Atlas mountains in Morocco to the Lut Desert in Iran, the Wadi Rum in Jordan and the White Desert in Egypt. “I left with the idea that people are generally good all over the world,” he says. “The journey reconciles you with others and with the unknown. In other words, the exact opposite of television.”