Pilot’s stunning aerial desert picture wins National Geographic’s 2018 photo contest

Flying high above the desert, photographer Jassen Todorov captured breathtaking scale and won the grand prize.

By Sarah Polger
photographs by Jassen Todorov
Published 7 Dec 2018, 09:50 GMT
The grand-prize winning photo, seen here, pictures thousands of Volkswagen and Audi cars sitting idle in ...
The grand-prize winning photo, seen here, pictures thousands of Volkswagen and Audi cars sitting idle in the Mojave Desert near Victorville, California.
Photograph by Jassen Todorov, 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest

It was a hot day in the desert in late May, just outside of Apple Valley, California, and Jassen Todorov knew the searing heat would challenge his small plane—a 1976 Piper Warrior.

Having often flown over California’s Mojave Desert, Todorov was familiar with the general area, including a Volkswagen vehicle storage lot located just outside the Southern California Logistics Airport. It was there Todorov would shoot the grand prize-winning image of the 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest.

The Southern California Logistics Airport—also known as Victorville Airport—is known for storing retired airplanes, eventually to be used as scrap metal or parts. But following the 2015 news that Volkswagen was manufacturing cars that subverted emissions tests, the vast stretch of land adjacent to the airport became a boneyard for recalled vehicles.

When Todorov read news that the recalled vehicles were being housed at the airport, he was struck by the scale of the story—he wanted to see the scene for himself.

A concert violinist by trade, Todorov began soaring above the ground in the early 2000s, eventually becoming a flight instructor and igniting his passion to visually capture the aerial world below—including both epic beauty and environmental challenges. [See more of Todorov's environmental photos from above.]

“When I fly long distances, I listen to a lot of music," Todorov says. "I’m able to combine music, flying, and photography. Music has a lot to do with structure and composition, colours and patterns, moods and characters—when I am looking at a photo, I am thinking about the same things.”

Todorov took to the skies, carefully coordinating with the airport tower to allow several passes above the scene he hoped to capture. Having researched the area on Google maps, he envisioned the picture he hoped to capture.

Simultaneously flying, communicating with airport control, and photographing is a juggling act Todorov has refined over the years. A mix of emotion swept over the pilot as he approached the area.

“These cars are just sitting out there and collecting dust,” he says.

Thousands of Volkswagen and Audi cars can be seen sitting idle in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert. Models manufactured from 2009 to 2015 with 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engines subverted emissions tests mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Following the scandal, Volkswagen recalled millions of cars and established 37 storage facilities throughout the U.S. to store the cars returned by owners.

“By capturing scenes like this one, I hope we will all become more conscious and more caring for our beautiful planet,” says Todorov.

As an active member of the National Geographic Your Shot photo community, Todorov will continue photographing and sharing his images, saying, “Your Shot has been such a dominant part of my life ever since I joined. It’s easy to lose yourself among the thousands of amazing photographs from all parts of the world.”

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