On the Origins of High Water

April 10, 2022

Iker Gil and Mimi Zeiger interview photographer and 2020-21 Exhibit Columbus Photography Fellow Virginia Hanusik.


Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 02

For three months every other year, Columbus, Indiana, welcomes a series of installations by renowned and emerging architects and designers created in response to its built environment. The initiative is part of Exhibit Columbus, a program of Landmark Columbus Foundation that makes Columbus’ design legacy relevant by producing projects and events that celebrate and inspire investments in architecture, art, and design. For their 2020–2021 symposium and exhibition cycle, co-curators Iker Gil and Mimi Zeiger, along with the invited participants, explored the future of the center of the United States and the regions connected by the Mississippi Watershed. Titled New Middles: From Main Street to Megalopolis, What is the Future of the Middle City?, the cycle speculated on the heartland, an ecology stretching beyond political borders—from North to South—from the Canadian Border to the Gulf, and from East to West—from Appalachia to the plains.

To visualize this vast territory and to place Columbus in context of the Mississippi Watershed, Iker and Mimi established the role of the Photography Fellows, inviting New Orleans-based Virginia Hanusik and Minneapolis-based David Schalliol to document parts of Columbus and the Mississippi Watershed from social, economic, and environmental perspectives. The result of that exploration was presented this past fall along with the work of the recipients of the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize and University Design Research Fellowship, as well as the High School Design Team, with environmental design and wayfinding by Jeremiah Chiu of Some All None.

Now that the 2020–2021 cycle is complete, Iker Gil and Mimi Zeiger talked to Virginia Hanusik about the work she produced during her fellowship, how she approached the watershed, and her takeaways.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 03

On the Origin of High Water, Columbus, Indiana, 2021. © Hadley Fruits.

How did you approach the fellowship?

VH: I focused geographically on the Lower Mississippi River watershed, approximately from South Louisiana to Cairo, Illinois. I looked at the fellowship as a way to explore the history of controlling the river and the human engineering that has exacerbated flooding over the past century.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 04

Wolf River, Memphis, Tennessee, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik.

How does it connect to your previous work in Louisiana but also along the East Coast of the US?

VH: I have spent the better part of the last decade photographing coastal Louisiana and the infrastructure of the Greater New Orleans area. My work generally focuses on the relationship between climate change and the built environment, specifically within landscapes that are undergoing rapid landscape changes. South Louisiana is losing land at one of the fastest rates in the world, and I have been working to capture a visual description of the region that challenges the historical narrative of disaster-related imagery.

My work in New York explores the ways the five boroughs are adapting to climate change and the investments in infrastructure that protect certain communities over others.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 05

Venice, Louisiana, 2020. © Virginia Hanusik. With less sediment pouring into the Gulf of Mexico and rebuilding land, the unique ecosystems of South Louisiana have been damaged by saltwater intrusion.

You live in New Orleans, located at the end of the Mississippi Watershed. How has the watershed been part of your life?

VH: Living at the end of the watershed has grounded me in the connectivity that exists around our shared resource and how decisions thousands of miles away have direct impacts here, whether that is pollution or river control systems. I photograph the ways that communities live with water and have adapted to a changing landscape.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 01

Old River Control Structure, Concordia Parish, Louisiana, 2020. © Virginia Hanusik. Built in 1964, the floodgate system regulates the flow of water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River, thereby preventing the Mississippi River from changing course.

Your project for New Middles focused on three themes: infrastructure, agriculture, and logistics. Can you discuss the human engineering of the watershed as it relates to those three themes and how the infrastructures created have benefited or harmed different communities?

VH: The course of the Mississippi River is meant to change; it is not constant. Because of the development of floodplains and the need to maintain channels for shipping and transportation, the current course of the river is a human design. We have altered the natural shifts in course that have occurred for thousands of years and helped build the Louisiana coast, among other things.

It was interesting to look at sites throughout the watershed where infrastructure was politicized like in Cairo, Illinois, and the New Madrid Floodway in Missouri. During the 2011 flood, the floodway was opened to relieve pressure on the levees in Cairo, in turn displacing the community of Pinhook, Missouri.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 06

Downtown Cairo, Illinois, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik. At the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Cairo is heavily leveed. In 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers waited for several days before following an emergency plan designed to save the impoverished, majority-black city of approximately 3,000 people.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 07

New Madrid Floodway, Missouri, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik. In 1928, Congress authorized using the Birds Foot-New Madrid Floodway as an emergency-release valve for the Mississippi River. In order to relieve pressure on levees upstream during a bad flood, the Army Corps can blow up the levee to intentionally flood the surrounding land.

Your work also challenges the visual iconography of the climate crisis, trying to avoid scenes of disaster and instead presenting the everyday landscape. How do you think that approach alters the viewer’s perception or reaction to the current climate crisis?

VH: The climate crisis leaves no aspect of life untouched and it’s a challenge for me to explore that visually. I try to use architecture and infrastructure as a way of talking about human behavior, and with this project there were a number of scenes that I captured which highlight the ways we have tried to control nature.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 08

Levee in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik.

Can you highlight a few photographs that you think are particularly relevant in that area?

VH: The End of the Mississippi River in Port Eads, Louisiana, is a photograph that opens the project by starting where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. It appears to be a serene sight, but the reality is that South Louisiana has lost an amount of land equivalent to the size of the state of Delaware since the 1930s because of a number of human interventions including the leveeing of the Mississippi River.

Farmland in Decatur County, Indiana, also captures the highly manipulated agricultural landscapes that impact water pollution which travels throughout the watershed eventually to the end.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 09

The End of the Mississippi River in Port Eads, Louisiana, 2020. © Virginia Hanusik. The port is named after James Buchanan Eads who was one of the most integral civil engineers in American history. He heavily influenced the modern-day design of the Mississippi River.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 10

Farmland in Decatur County, Indiana, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik. 44 percent of all land in the United States is used for farmland. More than 80 percent of land in Indiana is devoted to farms, forests, and woodland.

How does the overall approach to the Mississippi Watershed manifest in Columbus itself?

VH: With agriculture being one of the primary economic drivers in Indiana, it was integral to the project to look at Columbus and the surrounding counties as entry points to a larger conversation around stewardship of our shared resources. I also looked into past flooding events in the region and the ways land was developed in high-risk flood zones for the purpose of agricultural production.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 11

Flatrock River, Columbus, Indiana, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik. The June 2008 floods affected portions of the Midwestern United States including Columbus. After months of heavy precipitation, a number of rivers overflowed their banks for several weeks at a time and broke through levees at numerous locations.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 12

Agricultural production in Bartholomew County, Indiana, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik.

The work was presented both in a gallery setting alongside the work of David Schalliol as well as public spaces in Columbus such as an alley, a garage, and the observation tower at Mill Race Park. How was the work organized in response to the physical space?

VH: Each space was a distinct chapter in the project with the gallery setting being more of an introduction to the work. At the observation tower, the photographs were organized to take the viewer up the river as they climbed up the tower. Louisiana is at the bottom and Indiana is at the top with several sites in between. For the garage and alley, I was looking to group photographs together that either depicted hard infrastructure or dealt with environmental adaptation and displacement.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 13

On the Origin of High Water, Columbus, Indiana, 2021. © Hadley Fruits.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 14

On the Origin of High Water, Columbus, Indiana, 2021. © Iker Gil.

What would you hope people take away after seeing your work?

VH: I hope that folks can see how decisions throughout the watershed have real life impacts in places like South Louisiana and are interested in learning more about what can be done to mitigate environmental loss here in the state.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 16

Mississippi River and Marsh from the Port Eads Lighthouse, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, 2020. © Virginia Hanusik. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost approximately 2,000 square feet of land due to rising sea levels, the leveeing of the Mississippi River, and erosion from oil and gas infrastructure.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 15

Yazoo River, Redwood, Mississippi, 2021. © Virginia Hanusik.

Mas observations 2022 on the origins of high water 17

Delacroix, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 2020. © Virginia Hanusik.