Photographer Krista Schlyer Documents the Anacostia River as Its Future Hangs in the Balance

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©Krista Schlyer/kristaschlyer.com

We Washingtonians live at a critical moment, with profound alterations in our city’s physical landscape, resulting in demographic changes not seen in over half a century. As discussions mount about access to our changing city, and the specter of displacement looms over those who cannot afford the skyrocketing price of real estate, another series of changes has begun in earnest along the Anacostia River, from its confluence with the Potomac at Poplar Point to its headwaters in suburban Maryland. The resulting changes along DC’s second river can lead either to the creation of an unmatched natural wildlife preserve in one of the nation’s most densely populated urban areas, or another overdeveloped, deforested environment with a handful of developers profiting from short-term gains at the expense of public lands that would have benefited future generations.   

Photographer Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier resident, has spent the past five years connecting with the Anacostia River. A self-identified conservation photographer, Schlyer combines documentary photography with fine art to connect people to ecology by highlighting its beauty and value.

Schlyer grew up in rural Kansas. A little over 15 years ago her life took a radical turn when her boyfriend was diagnosed with an aggressive, untreatable form of cancer which took his life at 28. To help cope with unrelenting grief, Schlyer took trips to national parks and began photographing what she saw. However, as she explains, “I wanted it to be about more than just nature photography.” Schlyer believes that when we are disconnected from our origins in nature, it has an adverse effect on our minds. During her travels through national parks Schlyer credits her connection with nature with her ability to cope with grief: “Things started to make sense when I was in wild places.”

In an effort to place her growing body of work within a greater framework Schlyer connected with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Her critically acclaimed work documenting the environmental impact of the wall along the US-Mexico border led to a series of exhibitions, town-hall style discussions on immigration and the environment, and a book, “Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall” (Texas A&M Press).

Subsequently, in 2010, Schlyer embarked on a project with the International League of Conservation Photographers to document Chesapeake Bay. While capturing the Anacostia and the Potomac rivers for the project, she documented the beauty and the struggles of the Anacostia River. She has now collected a body of work on the river to spearhead conservation advocacy through exhibitions, talks, and articles. 

Schlyer sees a lot of commonality between her work on the US-Mexico border wall and the Anacostia River. In both cases, “There is a strong environmental justice component. The Anacostia River has trudged a path with a community that has been historically poor. The US border with Mexico is one the poorest parts of US, and neither community has had much political power.” However, Schlyer is more hopeful about the Anacostia’s future owing to efforts to clean up the river, while the environmental degradation along the US-Mexico border wall grows worse.

The Anacostia Waterfront Trust, one of the organizations with which Schlyer has partnered, addresses three of the most pressing issues facing the Anacostia River. First is to speed up the process of cleaning the river, in particular dealing with street pollutants that wash into the storm drains. Second is to remediate inputs of raw sewage through a $2 billion sewage tunnel. And third is concern about legacy toxins from the Navy Yard and other former waterfront industries. While progress is being made on the first and second, the issue of toxins in the sediment remains an ongoing battle between the US Navy and various federal and DC agencies.

Despite the unevenness of the clean-up efforts, Schlyer has brought the discussion of the future to the next generation of stakeholders – DC’s youth. Through the Daniel DiTondo Foundation, named after her deceased boyfriend, Schlyer has sought to connect youth to their river through summer camps and other programing which includes science and art as part of the curriculum.

Beyond Schlyer’s advocacy through photography, the fine-art component of her work stands on its own merits. As an artist Schlyer explains that “I try to be on the river as much as possible. I like to go out when there is ice on the river and capture the different seasons. One of the focuses for me is the idea of biodiversity in cities. We are better off as people and have a greater wellbeing when we can connect with wild creatures and spaces. Fine art is about value: everybody values wildlife or nature but it’s often in the background. My hope is to make it a little more present.”

More than a century later, like Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, or Theodore Roosevelt, Schlyer works in an inherently American tradition which reveres nature and places an emphasis on conservation for future generations. While efforts are underway to clean up DC’s eastern waterway, development pressures threaten to negate these gains. As an example Schlyer cites the construction of a new Whole Foods in College Park that will destroy a forest along the Anacostia’s watershed.  “There wasn’t even a conversation about the development’s impact on the river,” laments Schlyer. As the urban area around the Anacostia River develops, Schlyer hopes that developers can work with the public to protect a “wild place,” home to foxes, turkeys, and bald eagles to name a few of the diverse fauna which coexist adjacent to one of the nation’s most populated urban areas.

Phil Hutinet is the publisher of East City Art, dedicated to DC’s visual arts. For more information visit www.eastcityart.com.


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