Book Review: Watershed- The Tennessee River
By Ava McLaughlin
“In my time spent with this collection of images, I first saw what is largely a story of displacement due to the control and consequent degradation of the Tennessee River landscape. But now I see something different. This is not a vision of displacement but rather of a people’s uneasy inhabitants of a twenty-first-century watershed- the effort to inhabit both time and place. A complicated belonging. A river in its rough and degraded magnificence.” -Holly Haworth
Watershed: The Tennessee River examines the complicated environmental effects and consequences of large-scale modernization in the Tennessee River Watershed. This project, photographed by Jeff Rich, began on December 22, 2008. Rich investigates the Tennessee River and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s vast reach and power in the region. The TVA has forever changed the environment of its watershed that are in every way at odds with the natural evolution and ecology of the Tennessee River.
A watershed symbolizes the principle of ecology which is that all things are connected and everything in life belongs to everything. This watershed touching seven states containing a network of creeks, streams, and rivers contains the richest diversity of freshwater fish in the world, that is until modern industrialization took over.
The Tennessee Valley Authority came about in the middle of the Great Depression as a sign of hope for the region that was settled in poverty. TVA seeked to modernize an agrarian society that had been recently stripped of natural resources. They would oversee flood control, fertilizer production, electricity generation, river navigation, and economic development. They built 49 dams, 29 hydropower facilities, 8 coal-fired power plants, 16 natural gas plants, and 3 nuclear power plants throughout the watershed, meanwhile displacing tens of thousands of families throughout the region.
Photographer Jeff Rich spent seven years travelling the Tennessee River in order to picture and analyze the effects of the TVA on the land and to show the world what he saw. He wanted to show the familiar landscapes in a new perspective to those in Tennessee that have become used to what they see: the gentrification of human life and the depletion of the environment. He contains the difficult landscapes that other photographers usually cut out of their frames creating a new outlook. By capturing the landscapes while they are unpopulated and unaltered by human presence, he allows the audience to choose to be a part of the image or remain an observer. Rich captures the whole of the environmental depletion in a way so that the viewer cannot ignore what is happening in the environment. His goal is to remind the audience that we don’t only inhabit landscapes but we create them, for better or for worse.
The book features images of dead fish littered on lake shores, smoke billowing up in the sky above a fossil fuel plant, tall stacks of factories reflecting off of the water, and power lines stringed up across the watershed. The images of silent and serene rivers hide a feeling of anxiety as the environment is dying and people are being forced from their homes. The photographs and this book capture the truth that where there is beauty, there is also ugliness.