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Interviews: Jeff Rich on Watershed

Watershed by Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich's Watershed brings us to the banks of rivers flowing through Tennessee and North Carolina, an iterate series of waterways that eventually join together to form the Tennessee River, ultimately flowing into the Mississippi. The French Broad watershed is like many river systems in the United States, at once loved and abused -- a popular recreational destination, and a solution for industry, its waters carrying away a multitude of unwanted waste. Focusing on the environmental issues of a single watershed, Rich's work explores the complicated nature of our relationship to our rivers, his beautiful images showing both the damage done to the river, and those seeking to repair it.

We've been pleased to exhibit the Watershed series on the Photographer's Showcase and were thrilled in 2010 to see Rich win the Critical Mass Book Award from photolucida. After a wonderful collaboration between photolucida, designer Lauren Henkin and Rich, the book is out, and it is perhaps the finest that photolucida has ever produced. Jeff Rich was kind enough to take some time to talk with us about the Watershed project, the book and continuing the project downriver.

photo-eye:     Environmental water issues have become the major focus of your photographic work. What drew you to documenting water issues? Have environmental concerns always been a major part of your life?

Jeff Rich:     As a child I grew up on the water in Satellite Beach, Florida. I lived in a house along a street with only two houses. Our house overlooked a salt-water canal, with seawalls and docks and boat-lifts everywhere. There was an uninhabited island very near called Samsons Island. I spent a lot of time paddling my canoe around the island, fishing and watching the Pelican rookeries. I first became aware of environmental issues as I saw the growing development threatening the wildlife on the island. As the community became more concerned over the fate of the island, I witnessed citizen activism to help preserve and rehabilitate the area. Aside from loss of habitat, we had water quality issues in Satellite Beach as well. In the warmer months the canals and estuaries would turn a deep green with the bloom of algae. This algae was caused by the runoff from the fertilizer used on the perfectly maintained yards.

When I moved to Western North Carolina in 2004, I saw the same issues coming up on the creeks and rivers that flowed through Asheville. I was drawn to documenting the environmental organizations like Riverlink and the Western North Carolina Alliance in the area, which were attempting to educate the public about these issues, as well as manage the issues of runoff and habitat loss. As I learned more about watershed science and management, I became very interested in how the system works.

from Watershed by Jeff Rich
PE:     It seems that while your photographic focus is on the broader landscape, the real content is the human impact and consequence from polluting the waterways. Many of the people in your images seem to have a very personal connection to the river. What kind of relationships did you find between your subjects and the river?

JR:     Many of the subjects in the project spend much of their time on or around the rivers in Western North Carolina, some as residents with riverfront property, others as recreational paddlers and hikers, and a few as environmental activists. Their relationships varied widely, from simple appreciation of the landscape and waters, to a serious commitment to the continuing health of the rivers in the watershed. I found that no matter what level of their commitment, everyone had an interest in keeping the rivers clean and swimmable.

from Watershed by Jeff Rich
PE:     The scope of the project is big enough to be an overwhelming undertaking and, if not done thoughtfully, could result in something totally unfocused. How did you avoid these pitfalls? How did you decide where to shoot and what criteria did you use for the selection of images for the story you wanted to convey?

JR:     The project evolved many times since I started shooting it in 2005. With each evolution I edited out many images and subjects that no longer fit into the new boundaries of the project. When I settled on documenting the rivers and creeks of The French Broad watershed I first chose to document the environmental issues in the area. I found these subjects by using websites like and as sources of research, which led me to the largest polluters and Superfund sites in the area. Another source of research were non-profit organizations like Riverlink, as well as Harwell Carson, who is the French Broad Riverkeeper. As I worked with Hartwell and saw the measures being taken to clean up the watershed and educate the public on how to have a more sustainable relationship with the rivers, I decided that this stewardship was going to be another focus of the project.

With most of my subject matter I would use Google earth to see what sort of access I could get to these polluted sites, as well as where the road was closest to the river. This saved time and led to a sort of pre-production schedule that focused the work prior to shooting.

When deciding on specific subjects I went by three major criteria: pollution, control, and stewardship. These three factors had to be present in every image in order for them to fit into the overall project.

PE:     You were awarded the 2010 Critical Mass Book Award from photolucida. The resulting book is beautiful, well designed and laid out with just the right amount of information to ground and contextualize your images in the environmental realities of the area. How did the design come together? How was the collaboration with photolucida?

from Watershed by Jeff Rich
JR:     The collaboration with Photolucida was a very positive experience. They were very open to my ideas and had great suggestions for design and editorial additions. The design of the book was collaboration between myself and Lauren Henkin, who serves on the board of Photolucida, and was assigned as project manager and designer for the project. I worked with Lauren to decide on the content of the book, as well as design decisions such as page layout and sequencing. Lauren gracefully handled all of the design aspects of the book and implemented (and improved on) many of the ideas I had for the book. We decided to use two essays to frame the body of work and include pretty minimal caption information on each page, deciding to extend the stories of several images in the back of the book. The map that locates each of the images within the watershed was something I always wanted to include, and Lauren did a really great job paring down the map to create an elegant and simple view of the area.

The essays by Rod Slemmons and Hartwell Carson were essential for framing the work in an environmental tradition. I worked with Rod to relate his experiences growing up along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which faced many of the same issues as The French Broad. Hartwell and I worked together on the essay that details the specific environmental issues facing the rivers of the watershed. As the Riverkeeper he is very aware of the past and potential future of the watershed as a healthy system of waterways.
from Watershed by Jeff Rich
PE:     You’re currently continuing the project downriver, as it were, photographing where the French Broad turns into the Tennessee River Basin, and continuing on to the Mississippi. What are your long-term plans for the project? Are there plans to publish additional bodies of work in the book form?

JR:     Currently I am working on the Tennessee River portion of the project. Within that watershed I am focusing on the Tennessee Valley Authority (or TVA) and how they harness and control the rivers in the Tennessee Valley for power production, flood control, and recreational and commercial use. In the near future, I plan on focusing more closely on the residents affected by the TVA’s projects.

The Mississippi portion of the project is in its infancy at this point. I have documented a few places along the river, but with such a heavily used and controlled river the project is a far greater undertaking. Both chapters of the work will be evolving over the next year or so into something that will continue to document the issues of control and stewardship, but will deal with new issues as well.

Turning both chapters into their own book is the ultimate goal for the work. However I also want to include a more interactive aspect to the work. I have begun this process by creating a Google map that locates each of the images within a map of the watersheds, which can be seen here.

PE:     Do you see your work branching out into different social and environmental projects? How do you view the future of your work?

JR:     I am focusing pretty closely right now on finishing the two final chapters of Watershed, however I am interested in documenting other environmental systems throughout the world. But I have a feeling that my work will always be focused on documenting water issues.


Purchase a copy of Watershed here

See Jeff Rich's work on the Photographer's Showcase here