The Mississippi River watershed is almost unimaginably vast and varied. Trying to address the myriad dynamics that affect it seems impossible except to say something uselessly broad, such as: They all relate to water. David Schalliol, a photographer and a sociologist who has lived nearly all his life within the watershed, has a special interest in trying to understand its complexities. Inspired by the environmental systems that unite the region, From the Mississippi Watershed focuses on two themes revealed in the landscape: systems of interconnection and representation.

Starting from the interconnections created by water, this series of photographs highlights the production, consumption, and distribution systems that generate local and global connections. Taking commercial agriculture as an example, the project suggests dialogues between small-scale community supported agriculture in southern Minnesota and cattle feedlots in the Texas Panhandle. Through juxtaposition, we see how their shared reliance on the watershed manifests in dramatically different forms, pointing to the different dynamics that define each respective market.

Among those complicated interconnections are also physical representations of people’s relationships with their surroundings. Along state highways and in residential neighborhoods are monumental forms of self-expression: oversized caricatures of Texan cowboys and murals expressing the hybrid iconography of Mexican-American life in rural Oklahoma. These creations say much about how people present themselves in relationship to the places where they live. As public expressions, these works of art provide opportunities to connect with others through moments of curiosity, faith, and commerce. Ultimately, they reconnect with political, economic, and cultural systems, which often facilitated the possibilities in the first place.

In combination, these two thematic ideas address conditions simultaneously personal and systematic—interconnections between the environment, economics, and politics that are essential to understanding life in these “middles.” Schalliol’s locally embedded approach not only visualizes the territory, but also aims to offer another inroad toward tackling changing climate, environmental justice, and more.

Work by the 2021 Photography Fellows is displayed along the exhibition path in alleyways, parking garages, and Mill Race Park. Download the exhibition map to guide you to each location.

Download the 2021 Exhibition Map

David Schalliol is an Associate Professor of sociology at St. Olaf College interested in the relationship between community and place. His writing and photographs have appeared in such publications as Social Science Research, MAS Context, and The New York Times, as well as in numerous exhibitions, including the 2015 and 2017 Chicago Architectural Biennial, the inaugural Belfast Photo Festival, and at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. He is the author of Isolated Building Studies, and his directorial debut, The Area, premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April 2018.

"Over the years I've made all manner of specific projects in the region from differential development patterns, to not-for-profit-led mural installation projects, to the closure and consolidation of Catholic churches, and much of that work has been focused on the built environment."

— David Schalliol

Watch this one-hour video featuring Photography Fellows Virginia Hanusik and David Schalliol, in conversation with special guest Jasmine Benyamin, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who presents and describes the design concept for their projects. This is a previously recorded and archived event, view more on our YouTube channel.

"This fellowship has provided me the opportunity to link new work with more than twenty years of photographic and sociological projects that I've made throughout the Mississippi watershed. One of the many remarkable attributes of the watershed is that it's just unimaginably vast and varied. And when we think about the watershed in relation to New Middles we're talking about everything from agricultural centers turned innovation hubs, to desert ghost towns, to industrial powerhouses."

— David Schalliol
2021 Design Presentations