The River or the Rapids

Martin Litton rowing through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. By Jim Richardson

Martin Litton rowing through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. By Jim Richardson

Sometimes we pay too much attention to the rapids when we should be paying attention to the river. The rapids are interesting, but the river is important.

By Jim Richardson

In his previous entry Dennis Dimick spoke about the vast scale of the emerging Anthropocene epoch and the rapid changes of the Great Acceleration. And yet, while we see these subjects pop up occasionally in the news, they hardly garner the headlines you expect from world shattering events. Why not?

Why, for instance, does any Tweet from the prolific thumbs of President Trump make page one while news of droughts or world water use languish unheralded? More to the point for photographers, why are photojournalism contests like World Press Photo (and others) awash in images of war, catastrophe, and doom but they struggle to find or reward images of major environmental impact?

These questions are central to how news is made, and how it manages, despite earnest effort by everyone involved, to create a distorted view of what is happening in our world. And these questions are central to what environmental photographers must overcome to chronicle the epic effects of our emerging Anthropocene age.

For a moment step back with me to 1990. Dennis Dimick was a brand new picture editor at National Geographic and I had just a couple of stories under my belt (neither of them very successful.) We were both assigned the story on the Colorado River that I have mentioned in a previous post. It was to be the first of many collaborations that has brought us to this point with Eyes on Earth.

Our choice: Produce a conventional Colorado River story with rafts and canyon vistas, or a story that tries to understand the river's value to the American West.

We had a choice. Either we could do the conventional Colorado River story (rafting a magnificent wild river amid Grand Canyon vistas, wildlife gracing scenic wonders, Kodachrome visual homage) or we could try to understand why the river was important in the American West and try to make images to tell that story. Certainly it was tempting to cover the wild river rapids, all turbulence flooded with adrenaline. Or to linger on the North Rim waiting for lightning bolts to strike out at the Grand Canyon, thunder echoing through the great chasm. Certainly I didn't pass up the chance to row down the Grand Canyon in dories with Martin Litton, the grand old man of Colorado River preservation. 

But scenic as they are, these scenes are not actually very revealing; they don’t tell us much about why the Colorado is so important. To understand that you have to pay attention to the river, not the rapids. The rapids are interesting, but the river is important.

Understand this: The Colorado is not actually a very big river. It’s no Amazon nor even close to a Mississippi. But it is the only game in town in a very dry land where big cities (Las Vegas, Los Angeles) suck up every drop of water they can get and where there is no agriculture without irrigation. That’s why Western water law is such a savage battlefield. That’s why Hoover Dam stands out as an icon of American ambition and environmental control. That’s why the American Southwest can’t live without the Colorado. And that’s why the “mighty” Colorado withers and finally disappears in the sands of Mexico, rarely (if ever) to reach the ocean again. We control it, we manage it and we use it all up.

That’s the story we decided to tell. Not as viscerally or visually exciting but more important. This story about how the river worked and the value it provided to the West wasn’t easy to produce, but it set us on a course towards further environmental coverage.

Instead of news about the environment we get news about the environmental debate.

Contrast that approach with the more normal and established workings of the world of news and you’ll start to understand why major environmental issues struggle for attention. Headlines battle for prominence and attention in a fierce news marketplace on a daily basis. Changes in climate don’t happen on a daily time frame; they happen over years, decades, and centuries, and these slow changes generally never reach the news headline trigger point to get onto page one. Instead of news about the environment we get news about the environment debate. While the rest of the world has moved towards fixing climate change, for example, Americans still debate the existence of climate change.

More important, however, is the viewpoint of the news practitioners: the reporters, editors, and photographers. The journalistic food chain is as obvious as it is short. Page one goes to catastrophic events, photo contest wins go to war and famine. Too often war and famine are just manifestations of big underlying problems. In my metaphor war and famine are the rapids. Meanwhile, the river of big underlying problems – the forces that brought on the war and famine – go unreported and thus poorly understood. The rapids vs. the river.

Right now scientists are debating when the Anthropocene began. Was it after World War II when the Great Acceleration took off? Was it 200 years ago with the coming of the Industrial Revolution? Or was it 10,000 years ago with the coming of agriculture, when we began to fundamentally take command of the biosphere? Put another way this debate is essentially about trying to decide when the most important event in human history began.

Foundational pictures are the perennials of the visual world.

For photographers these manifestations of the Anthropocene are abundantly visible. These epochal events provide the foundation for our modern world. But these events and scenes rarely make daily news because they happen too slowly. These slow-moving signs of the Anthropocene don’t come prepackaged for easy understanding like crisis-oriented news stories do. On the other hand news pictures are ephemeral, with a fleeting half-life, but foundational pictures – like the enduring pictures seen here of the Colorado River that reveal its value to society – are the perennials of the visual world. Foundational pictures provide reference points and baselines, and they live long robust productive lives, gaining value over the decades. Not so flashy, they endure and are ultimately more insightful.

In coming posts I’ll carry this theme forward with several examples from a variety of fields and subjects worth cultivating. More rapids and rivers to think about.

More Reading...

The Colorado: A River at Risk by Jim Richardson and Jim Carrier

The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict by Peter McBride and Jonathan Waterman

Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner

Colorado River Map, National Geographic