The Magic of Your First Car

The ability to get behind the wheel of a car for the first time and go anywhere is a distinct American rite of passage. For many young people, their first car grants them a freedom to explore their city on an intimate level, with their windows down and music blasting – and away from the prying eyes of parents. It can be a means to escape monotony and fear — especially during the height of the pandemic — and a gathering space where they can let it all go.

The photographer Adali Schell, 21, grew up in Los Angeles and spent last summer documenting the members of his creative community in their cars. In interviews conducted over the fall, they spoke about the joy of getting behind the wheel, creating a space of safety and curiosity for themselves and their fears about the future — including the increasingly damaging effects of climate change.

Finding a place to belong “feels so scarce” in L.A., Adali said. But in the confines of an old Mercedes Benz (now powered by vegetable oil), a former taxi cab, a beat-up Volvo and a “mom” car, this group of artists and students found “a stronger sense of self and sense of security.”

“It’s hard to find a home away from home, especially if you’re trying to find yourself or if you’re in a toxic living situation or whatever the situation might be,” said Adali. “The car is a remedy for a lot of those things. It’s both a thing that can take you somewhere and a thing that could really protect you.”

Driving around on her own for the first time was exhilarating, Keni Titus, 21, at right, said. “It’s so interesting to be in charge, like, oh my God, if we want to go through the drive-through, we can go. You want to smoke a cigarette in my car? You can smoke a cigarette in my car.”

“That is the first taste of adulthood and ultimate freedom.”

A young person with dark hair and sunglasses stands outside a car, leaning into the open window of the driver's side with their arms crossed.

Kali Flanagan, 18, just got his license a few months ago. “I think a lot of people my age feel a lot of pent-up energy,” he said. “For one thing, the world is just overstimulating, especially with technology.”

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