Jeff Rich is a South Carolina-based photographer and educator who explores water-related issues via long-term documentary projects about specific regions of the United States. He earned his BA in film and video and MFA in photography from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia and serves as assistant professor of photography at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. Rich’s project Watershed: A Survey of The French Broad River Basin was awarded the 2010 Critical Mass Book Award and was published as a monograph in 2012. The second installment of the project, Watershed: The Tennessee River, was published in 2017. His work is housed in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Asheville Art Museum, North Carolina; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; and The Do Good Fund, Columbus, Georgia.
Watershed takes as its subject the basins of the French Broad and Tennessee Rivers. These two waterways play important roles in the economic vitality, recreation, and quality of life of their regions, though they have also been beset by serious pollution problems. Both have been strongly impacted by industrial and governmental projects and Rich’s photographs document the effects of this history on the landscape and the people who inhabit it.
The French Broad River flows through western North Carolina into Tennessee. Traversing parts of the Appalachian Mountains, it is used for recreation while also fueling industry and power plants. Blue Ridge Paper Mill (2008), for example, presents the site of an important employer but also a major polluter in Canton, North Carolina. The plant dumps millions of gallons of waste water each day into the small Pigeon River, which flows into the nearby French Broad. Rich frames the industrial site—with its smokestacks and rolling exhaust—against a serene landscape of hills and a rising sun in the distance and trees and shrubs in the foreground. Rich consciously attempts to address water issues without overwhelming his viewers with overly negative images, and this photograph achieves a measured tone by showing the industrial site in eerie harmony with the beautiful nature around it.
The Tennessee River Basin is an area of rivers that cross seven southeastern states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. It has been shaped by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned corporation originally created by Congress during the Great Depression. During its eighty-five years of existence, the TVA has used the area’s rivers to produce energy in concert with coal-fired power plants and, more recently, natural gas and nuclear energy facilities. It provided modernization and jobs in economically struggling areas but also displaced citizens with the building of dams and flooding of land and was responsible for several environmental disasters. View of Condemned House and Kingston Coal Ash Spill (2009) shows some of the fallout from a 2008 event in which 1.1 billion gallons of wet coal ash was spilled across three hundred acres of land and into the tributaries of the Tennessee River—the worst disaster of its kind in the United States. It occurred at the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant when an ash dike ruptured. Rich’s photograph shows the impact of the spill on the land where areas of wet coal slurry have been fenced off; it also makes evident that, even before the spill, the land was dominated by the plant’s intrusive electrical towers and power lines.
Rich’s photographs not only address the effects of industry on the land, but they also document the work of citizens to promote environmentalism and sustainability. Mary, Esther, and Ellis (2014), for example, shows three members of an organization that has been fighting to protect its community since the opening of a coal-ash landfill in small, primarily black Uniontown, Alabama. The Arrowhead Landfill contains four million tons of ash from the TVA’s Kingston plant. Since its arrival, community members report increased health problems and the deaths of local animals. In Rich’s image three women study papers around the formal dining table of an antebellum mansion. The racism of the past that is evoked by the antebellum architecture is transcended by the collaboration of these women. Together they fight a David versus Goliath battle against the TVA to save their community. Rich’s photographs offer such positive moments of hope, along with an appreciation for the beauty and value of the waterways, while also grappling with the enormity of the environmental problems they face.