Water with a conscience at Annenberg Space for Photography


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As the world faces the challenge of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we have renewed cause to contemplate the role of water in our lives. A good place to start is at the Annenberg Space for Photography’s current exhibit, “Water: Our Thirsty World.”

The exhibit is in partnership with National Geographic Magazine and features photos from a special issue of the magazine. It’s split into six themes, each of which explores the role of water in human life and its relationship to our survival and that of the planet. The documentary-style images are bright, bold and arresting and serve as vivid guideposts to the complicated social and ecological issues surrounding water resources and arid lands.


The Annenberg space is the photographic equivalent of theater in the round, with pictures arranged in an aperture-like circle around a multimedia presentation space. The “Water” exhibit begins its journey on one side of the sphere. with photos from a series called “The Big Melt,” which examines what’s called “the great melt of the Tibetan Plateau,” an endangered glacial source that reportedly supplies nearly 40% of the world’s water.

In a caption, 16-year-old Vinay says, “‘If you throw money here, no one would have time to grab it. Water is more important to us.’ “

Despite many images of bright-blue liquid, the exhibit is more about the desperation generated by thirst.

Some of the exhibit’s most breathtaking images come from the series “The Burden of Thirst,” in which photographer Lynn Johnson follows the daily journey of Kenyan women as they walk through miles of stark desert -- colorful skirts and headdresses flapping around their thin, dark legs -- with bright yellow containers of water on their backs. A drought in that country has made retrieving safe drinking water even more difficult, and as the caption points out, “If the millions of women who haul water long distances had a faucet by their door, whole societies could be transformed.”

More familiar is “California’s Pipe Dream,’ in which pictures by Edward Burtynsky show vast expanses of suburban land with cookie-cutter tract homes that have been abandoned, their once-verdant lawns returning to a natural, arid state. Other images show Los Angeles freeways and sprawl, a desert region fed by imported water.

The exhibit comes full circle with touching pictures from the series “Sacred Waters,” which documents humanity’s communal, religious and ritualistic use of water. A giant print by John Stanmeyer depicting half-naked men and women rolling, bathing and dancing in the crisp, cold water of the Saut d’Eau waterfall in Ville Bonheur, Haiti, during the Festival of the Virgin of Miracles seems to embody the almighty, life-giving power of water.


‘Water: Our Thirsty World’: The Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, No. 10, Los Angeles. Wednesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through June 13. Free. (213) 403-3000,
-- Jessica Gelt

Photo credits: (top) Lynn Johnson / National Geographic; (bottom) John Stanmeyer VII / National Geographic