Documenting Life Along a River to Emphasize Its Importance

By Conor Risch

© Jeff Rich
The Blue Ridge Paper Mill on the Pigeon River, one of the tributaries of the French Broad River. To see more images from the project, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

In his new book, Watershed: The French Broad River, which was produced with the support of the 2010 Photolucida Critical Mass book award, Jeff Rich observes the French Broad River and its tributaries through landscapes and portraits he made along the rivers’ banks. After being declared “dead” from pollution in the mid-twentieth century, the French Broad has become healthy again and is considered one of the success stories of the Clean Water Act. But through Rich’s photographs we understand that the health of the French Broad—and indeed all of the nation’s rivers—depends on vigilance and good stewardship.

Rich’s connection with the French Broad began in 2005 when he documented the work of RiverLink, a non-profit river stewardship organization in Asheville, North Carolina, where he was based at the time. Rich had a deep interest in environmental issues. He grew up in Florida near an island that was a key nesting habitat for birds, and people in the community were able to save the habitat from development, ingraining in Rich an understanding of the power citizens can have in determining land use and preserving the environment.

While working with RiverLink, Rich got a tour of the Swannanoa River, a French Broad tributary, which joins the French Broad in Asheville, from a “river keeper.” “He took me on this tour of the entire river and told me about all the issues they were dealing with on this river,” Rich recalls. “It really opened my eyes to this idea of managing the river and managing the people who live along the river.”

Rich began photographing pollution along the French Broad and its tributaries. The people he showed the images to thought they were beautiful, but also depressing. Rich didn’t “want this to be a project that brings people down. I want them to realize how important this watershed is. People weren’t making the connection back to the river. They were just saying ‘That’s such a shame.’”

Rich began making portraits of people who work, live or recreate along the river, encouraging viewers to spend time “thinking about their own relationship with the river and about how they can either change that or make that better,” Rich says.

The photographs in Rich’s book include landscapes that are both idyllic and troubling, and Rich structured his project around this visual contrast. A waterfall at the headwaters of the French Broad in North Carolina drops into a peaceful pool surrounded by green and yellow trees. A sunset casts orange light on the top of the Douglas Dam power station. In one photograph, smoke from the Blue Ridge Paper Mill, which has been a major polluter of the Pigeon River, a French Broad tributary, since the early-Nineties, fills nearly the entire frame, giving viewers only glimpses of the plant and the river.

The portraits show a water conservation director at work, local residents utilizing campgrounds, a group of individuals who run a hot springs resort, and a pair of rafting guides who run their business along the French Broad.

While Rich began the project with a focus on advocacy, he made the conscious choice to create more formal images that could appeal to art photography audiences and reach a wider population with the work. This shift has allowed him to engage people beyond the immediate French Broad Watershed conservation community. In addition to winning the Critical Mass book award and publishing his book, Rich has exhibited his work at Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta, and is having a show of the work later this year at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, also in Atlanta.

Rich also plans to continue his “Watershed” project with the Tennessee Watershed, where the French Broad flows into the Tennessee River. As the third phase of the project he plans to follow the Tennessee River to the Ohio River, then the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, documenting the largest watershed in the United States. “A big thing for me was knowing that this water ended up in the Mississippi rather than the [nearby] Atlantic Ocean,” Rich says. “For the longest time before I started the project I would just drive over the rivers and not know their names, and not know where they went.” With Watershed: The French Broad River, Rich encourages us to pay closer attention to the rivers around us and take part in their stewardship.

Related Article:

Jeff Rich Photo Gallery

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