The Mississippi River watershed is the fourth largest in the world, spanning over 40 percent of the continental United States. Ever since colonists arrived and began to develop this vast, fertile terrain, the struggle to control the river’s natural forces has influenced the landscape of the country. Engineering decisions to alter the flow of water in Montana, Indiana, and Colorado have environmental impacts as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

Although the region is intricately connected by a shared resource, there is a division between who has benefited and who has been harmed by over a century of human engineering to manipulate the river’s water flow. Infrastructure is not neutral; it is a physical marker of tension that results in both loss and gain.

Explicitly seen over the last decade, climate change has increased the rate of extreme flooding; 2019 was the costliest year for flood damages in U.S. history, with total economic costs reaching nearly $24 billion. These events further exposed the fragility of our constructed environment and reinforced the notion that disasters are political. Floods can no longer be considered a natural occurrence—they are often the result of policies that protect certain communities over others.

By photographing sites of structural significance throughout the human-altered Mississippi River watershed, this project explores the social and environmental impacts of its infrastructure.

Works below are on view at the Mill Race Park observation tower:

1. Flatrock River, Columbus, Indiana, Virginia Hanusik, 2021.

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.

2. Mississippi River Waterfront, Memphis, Tennessee, Virginia Hanusik, 2021.

Memphis’ downtown riverfront is used recreationally, with heavy industry primarily located just south of the city on President’s Island.

3. Mud Island, Memphis, Tennessee, Virginia Hanusik, 2021.

A 2,000-foot-long scale model is located on Mud Island in Memphis, which depicts the lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico.

4. Clearance Markers, I-40 Bridge, Memphis, Tennessee, Virginia Hanusik, 2021.

Nearly 12,000 ships—including 6,000 oceangoing vessels—travel the lower river corridor annually, carrying 500 million tons of cargo.

5. Old River Control Structure, Concordia Parish, Louisiana, Virginia Hanusik, 2020.

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.

6. Venice, Louisiana, Virginia Hanusik, 2020.

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

7. The End of the Mississippi River in Port Eads, Louisiana, Virginia Hanusik, 2020.

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.

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

Virginia Hanusik is a photographer whose work explores the relationship between landscape, culture, and the built environment. Her projects on climate change, landscape adaptation, and environmental justice have been featured in The New Yorker, Domus, Places Journal, NPR, The Atlantic, MAS Context, and Oxford American among others, and supported by the Graham Foundation and Mellon Foundation. Her project “A Receding Coast: The Architecture and Infrastructure of South Louisiana” challenges the visual iconography of the climate crisis and has been exhibited internationally.

She has lectured at institutions including Columbia University, Bard College, New York University, and Rutgers University about landscape representation and the visual narratives of climate change, and is a member of the Climate Working Group where she helps coordinate multi-disciplinary projects on the climate crisis with artists and scholars. She received her BA from Bard College and lives in New Orleans.

"My current body of work examines flooding and the politics of disasters in the Mississippi River watershed."

— Virginia Hanusik

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.

"As this work relates to Columbus and New Middles, I've been focusing on three themes that connect these places: Infrastructure, Agriculture, Logistics."

— Virginia Hanusik
2021 Design Presentations