Artist & Activist Sant Khalsa on Capturing Good Water, Pure Water, Our Water: An interview
Though artist and activist Sant Khalsa has lived in Southern California for decades, the native New Yorker grew up in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, just along the Hudson River. As such, her relationship with the smallest postage stamps of nature began early. “I’ve always felt a connection to green spaces and to trees,” explains the artist. “Always. I lived walking distance from the Hudson River where I [spent] a lot of time.” But, it wasn’t until after she had left the East Coast in 1975 that she became engaged in the environmental movement.
“There was a big fire — the panorama fire — in 1980,” she recalls. “[It] got me thinking about the power of nature.” Up until that point, her photography was predominantly focused on portraiture. But, the San Bernardino fire changed that. Wanting to document the evidence of the widespread burning, she grabbed her camera and refocused her attention. The more time she spent out photographing, the more she started “trying to understand our relationship with the natural world.” She deepened that understanding by doing a lot of reading and research.
By the end of the decade, her environmentalism was visibly affecting her art. “I felt like I was trying to bring attention to what was going on, [by] bringing the problems into my work in a more direct way,” elaborates Khalsa. Around this time, she began to harness the effect her photography could have on her audience. Although photography is often “very subjective [and] fictional,” she realized that “the power of photography is that people believe it. So, you can, in a sense, subject your opinion and have an impact on how people see the world.”
Khalsa’s artistic relationship with water began when she was driving through San Bernardino. “There was this one freeway overpass,” she recalls. “And every time I would drive over this one area I would always look down and think: What is that down there?” Eventually she figured out that she had been looking down at the Santa Ana River. “It was dry, and massive, [and] a mile wide,” she declares, as she stretches her arms apart to mimic the vastness, “I decided to go down there and start photographing.”
Shooting the Santa Ana River and watershed became a 20-year project for Khalsa. “That was where I really learned about water. I photographed the building of the Seven Oaks Dam over nine years. [And] I helped found the Water Resources Institute (WRI) at California State University, San Bernardino, [ in 1999]. I was the one artist with all of the scientists.” She also joined the Water in the West project to document water issues along with other photographers. “I just really got into water on an artistic, academic, research and personal level,” shares the artist.
In the 90s, much of Khalsa’s work related to drinking water was actually not photography related. Instead, there were installations and community engagement projects. “One was called Sacred Spring,” a wall with spigots, each with different words on them. “You could drink from them,” she assures. “It was about the psychology of consumption.” It was around this time that her idea for Western Waters began to form.
While researching watersheds online, she discovered Water Shed, a business in Palmdale, California. What is this? she thought, as she made up her mind to drive there. “It was a strip mall, with a water store that had a reverse osmosis system. People could walk in with their bottles and have the water purified,” explains Khalsa. Although she had never seen anything like that before, the business strategy turned out to be a common one. “I found that they were all over the Southwest. Hundreds of them, and more were popping up.”
She “decided to start photographing them,” so she spent three years traveling from state-to-state to do so. She found herself drawn in by the names of these stores. “They were spiritual names, like Heavenly Water, Pure Water,” she recalls. “[Some referred to a place:] Lake Water, River Water. [Others listed] qualities of water: Best Water, Good Water.” She was also drawing inspiration from Edward Ruscha’s prints of popular signage and Bernd & Hill Becher’s stately photographs of water towers that they shot while traveling across North America and Europe.
Khalsa started shooting the images long before she gave the collection its double-meaning title. “I called it Western Waters,” she explains, “because I was photographing only in the West, but also because I didn’t find a lot of research about water stores in other parts of the United States.” She also suspected that the title would make people expect to see photographs of the Pacific, or a lake, or something natural; instead, they were only going to see a store. “The irony of that is just too bizarre,” she muses.
“I wanted to know why the owners got into the business,” shares Khalsa. “For most, it was entirely entrepreneurial — it seemed like a good investment.” She even managed to interview “the man who started the first water store in Alamogordo, New Mexico.” But, things were not always smooth sailing. “Some people would get upset that I was photographing their store,” reveals the artist. “There were one or two cases where they told me I couldn’t use them.” Still, she was able to capture some 200 images, even though she used 60 in the final collection.
Though most of Khalsa’s prior work was shot with her go-to medium format film, the entire Western Waters collection was shot with the same camera, on the same kind of film — 35mm. “I was thinking about Edward Ruscha again, and that sort of like, snapshot esthetic,” she recalls. And even though it would have been easier to shoot digitally because of the lighting, the images were processed, developed, and printed by Khalsa.
In the artist statement that accompanies her collection, Khalsa explains that she wants to address “the commodification of water as a consumer product.” She is “fascinated by the implied necessity yet absurdity to these stores,” and was hoping that these images would “establish a framework for understanding how we view the natural world (especially water) as a commodity.” Her hope is that these photographs will serve as documentation of what she calls “a fleeting fad or a foundation of what will become commonplace in our society.”
Western Waters is now twenty years old. A lot has changed. And, as a culture, we have begun to make minute changes to have a more symbiotic relationship with the resource, by relying on reusable bottles instead of plastic, and opting for water from home filters instead of convenience stores. And even though an argument can and should be made that we can do more, Khalsa remains an optimist: “I tend to believe that when given the challenge, human beings come through.”
Note* All images are the intellectual and creative property of Sant Khalsa, © 2021, All Rights Reserved.