The End of the Dream – Installing dystopian billboards throughout California

The End of the Dream is a series of photographic installations portraying the three challenges endangering California’s existence: drought, wildfire, and housing. I installed 23 billboards throughout the state last summer, followed by 900 large posters in San Francisco in the previous four months. The self-funded project aims to provide an impartial record of California’s present condition through images, without any text or call to action. The project has been covered by the LA Times, USA Today, and 8 television stations in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.

The Beginning of the project

From the gold rush in the 1840s to the tech boom of the 2010s, the California Dream has always represented the promise of fresh starts, freedom, and limitless prosperity. But that dream has been threatened in recent years. Extreme wildfires, drought, and the homelessness crisis have made California’s future look more like a dystopia than a paradise. Encampments that resemble those in the poorest of countries exist in every city. Wildfires burn uncontained for months. Once-in-a-generation droughts are commonplace. As Ben Jackson wrote in 2021 in the London Review of Books, “This year is not the new normal; if anything, we will never have it so good again.”

The End of the Dream is my attempt to chronicle this decline.

The Process

For the last two years, I have driven tens of thousands of miles all over California photographing empty river beds and reservoirs. I have photographed wildfires that cover millions of acres and encampments large and small. I have slept in my car near National Guard checkpoints and driven for 16 hours at a time. I am trying to create a unique language that binds all three parts of the project together. The visual vocabulary I use is unadorned and without pretense; I often think of a Philip Glass etude or Brutalist architecture when making the images.

I want to show that wildfires, drought, and encampments are all part of a single whole and are connected. At times, it is not clear what an image shows: is that a burned-out house or the start of a homeless encampment? Is that landscape decimated by lack of water or a runaway fire? All the images are devoid of people and are untethered to a specific time or place. Is this 50 years ago or 50 years in the future? Where are these places? Is this even Earth?

I am not interested in blaming one political party or the other for creating these problems. We all have played a part in getting us to where we are today, and I think shaming people isn’t going to work.


Billboards and Posters

Throughout our history, radical change became possible only when we have seen visual evidence of the problem. It wasn’t until the world saw Charles Moore’s images of Bull Connor turning hoses and dogs on protestors in Birmingham that the Civil Rights Bill made progress. Eddie Adams’ photograph of the Vietcong prisoners’ execution hastened the end of the Vietnam War. Darnella Frazier’s video of George Floyd’s murder forced the country to face its racist history. If we are going to begin to address our problems in California we are going to have to look at them.

Final thoughts

My goal with The End of the Dream is to create an unbiased record of California’s condition today. The images are not meant as warnings or calls to action. I only ask that we stop looking away. Simply put, I am taking an inventory. I am like a grocery clerk counting cereal boxes and soup cans in the middle of the night.

Technical Details and Media Response

Technical details: I shoot with 4 Leica M3s. 95% of the time I am on the 28mm and 50mm. Occasionally I use the 90mm and 21mm. I am using Kodak 500T Vision 3 5219 with an 85filter. Colorlab in Rockville, MD processes the film and I am doing rough scans on Pacific Image XT and drum scans for the finals.
The project can be seen here.

The response to the project has been overwhelming. It has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, every newspaper where the billboards were installed and in television stations all over California. If interested you can make a contribution here.

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About The Author

32 thoughts on “The End of the Dream – Installing dystopian billboards throughout California”

  1. Damn, Mr. Broening, as a California resident and photographer and someone who shares your alarm, I really admire what you have done. Your images are beautiful and your personal focus should be an inspiration to all of us.

    1. Yes beautiful images but there of why I moved out and remind me of the loss. It’s a damn shame. I wonder though… dont the images just blend into the surrounding reality?

  2. These photographs are wonderful and stunning… both the work and the images of the work hoisted into various settings via this brilliant campaign! Bravo!! Your article cites “extreme wildfires, drought, and the homelessness crisis” as the primary culprits… and I understand your reluctance or resistance or lack of interest in blaming “one political party or the other.” But you need to consider the reality that ONE POLITICAL PARTY HAS CONTROLLED CALIFORNIA’S ASSEMBLY AND HOUSE SINCE 1970 except for four brief years in this 50-year span… you also need to consider that more than 700,000 Californians have left since 2020. Politics mandates or influences taxes, economic prosperity, management of forestry and maintenance practices and so on. A huge portion of those leaving have cited politics as the key driving force for their view of California as an impending wasteland. While some are joyful that conservatives are leaving, many are well-educated and have higher incomes, the people that California can least afford to lose. Well, that could be an interesting followup… respectfully and with admiration, thanks for reading!

    1. Scott, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I think little can be gained by blaming one party or another for the condition California is in. We all have a part to play and the focus of my work is acknowledge the enormity of the challenge we are facing. Only then can talk about an possible solutions.

    2. Yes beautiful images but there of why I moved out and remind me of the loss. It’s a damn shame. I wonder though… dont the images just blend into the surrounding reality?

  3. Bravo, Thomas, for presenting such heart wrenching images of California. And the fact that you let the images speak for themselves without placing blame on a particular party or group is laudable. I appreciate your photojournalism efforts in documenting these trying times.

  4. Marco Andrés

    Bravo. We need images to speak powerfully. And they can without words.

    Although the project was focused on California, the work has resonance beyond the boundaries of that state.
    « Think locally act globally. »
    It speaks to a world currently plagued with floods [Vermont, upper Hudson Valley in New York state …], droughts [the Horn of Africa≥], heat waves [Italy, India …], fires [Canada…], shifting jet stream [El Niño] and deforestation [Africa, the Amazon, …].

    We are the problem. Not just one party or one country. We are all responsible for the cataclysmic shift from events that used to happen once in a hundred years to once in thirty-seven [Floods in Vermont]. The time for action was decades ago. And yet we do little to curb the use of fossil fuels. Or to realize in the words of Marshall McLuhan that « We are a global village » or to truly take to heart « The Tragedy of the Commons»
    « The concept of unrestricted-access resources becoming spent, where personal use does not incur personal expense, has been discussed for millennia. »

    1. Marco ,
      I agree completely . I chose California as a proxy for the entire planet. The issues I am exploring are print throughout the country and planet. Thanks for looking. Thomas

  5. These are wonderful, both the photos and the photos of the photos. Super evocative and I really appreciate your manner of presentation, and the message you are trying to get across. Not moralizing or preaching, simply putting something in front of us that is, quite literally, too large to miss, so that our mind can digest and respond to them in our own way. I think that’s really underutilized in today’s world, it gives the viewer both credit and responsibility. Really excellent.

  6. Thanks for your work, more is needed to make us face reality.

    Regardless of the content, your billboards pictures are really great art pieces.


  7. Serious work about a serious problem – perhaps both ‘serious’ adjectives are huge understatements. The problem is worldwide. Here in Japan, a country used to natural disasters, the number and intensity of heatwaves is dramatically increasing – the reaction? Sell more air-conditioners. The number of rainstorm and flood disasters is increasing, leading to greater numbers in temporary housing. Please continue with your important work.

  8. Thanks Thomas,

    I really appreciate the dedication you took to see this work completed.

    As a society we are so driven to distraction that often we fail to see the most pressing issues before us. Let’s hope that people are eventually moved to action before we reach a point of no return, not only in California but worldwide.

    Thank you again for allowing your photos to give testament to the problems your state faces.


  9. I really enjoyed this series (despite the seriousness). Before I read it carefully, I thought the images were from the 2019/20 Australian bushfires. A reminder this is a world wide problem.

  10. Joe Van Cleave

    I’m interested in the funding backstory to this project: this sounds extremely expensive to pull off. Who were the backers (if any)?

  11. These are absolutely incredible. I’m completely enraptured by these photographs and the way you’ve displayed them – especially the shot of the cars below the underpass, the raging fire in the burned out car, and the makeshift house with the flags.

    No pressure at all, but I would absolutely love to get in touch to discuss this further, and share some work I’ve been making in Sydney, Australia with a similar stylistic focus (a set of long exposures taken at night as an exploration of ethereal and transitory spaces I’ve discovered through the illegal rave scene)

    My email is [email protected], if it sounds like a correspondence you’d like to have, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email : )

    Thank you!

  12. Simon Cygielski

    Fantastic project, and a great way to show your thoughtful and engaging images!
    The only thing I think is a bit too much is the title: California has certainly had its ups and downs, and I doubt this is the end of it or the aspirations it represents.

  13. Fantastic project, Thomas! Your photos are stunningly beautiful, sad and disturbing at the same time. I can only imagine how much this project might cost…

    One technical question. I love Kodak Vision film, especially 250D. Why did you choose the tungsten film, not daylight? Due to higher sensitivity?

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