Amanda Keller Konya

Specimens From America's Most Polluted River

Common modes of conveying information, such as science and journalism, fail to represent the complex reality of the New River, which flows north from Mexico into California — its use by illegal immigrants as a crossing point, its toxic state, the way it marks the boundary between public and private space. I was especially moved to undertake this project when I learned that the river, containing DDT, PCBs, and other dangerous chemicals, runs through California’s Imperial Valley, adjacent to crops grown and eaten every day by Americans nationwide. Illegal immigrants have direct contact with this chemical stew, and Border Patrol agents, as a matter of policy, won’t enter the water.

I produced the image component of this project at different access points to the river, collecting water samples along the way. Each image is enclosed in a specimen bottle and suspended in river water taken from the corresponding site. I labeled the bottles with traditional specimen tags, which record thoughts and experiences from police officers, Border Patrol agents, immigrants, hunters, activists, and community leaders. To play with ideas of image construction, I built a reversal of the photographic experience into the work: the viewer looks through the river water to see the photograph, whereas one typically would look at the photograph to see the river.


Untitled (1) from the Specimens from North America’s Most Polluted River series

“The solution is to enclose the New River along Highway 98 for about three miles.  To reduce this pollution it has been proposed to build a bar screen at the beginning of the enclosed river and a wetland at the end. This is a natural water pretreatment system. With this project land would be available for more than 300 acres for the City of Calexico and more than 400 acres for the county where we can create expressways and commercial buildings as well as parks and housing.”
      - New River Sanitation Improvements Project

©Amanda Keller Konya


Untitled (2) from the Specimens from North America’s Most Polluted River series

“A lot of people have the attitude that it is not going to change for us. We don’t have the economic or political clout to demand a better quality of life, a better environmental quality.  If this river was running through San Diego or San Francisco Bay there would have been mitigation long ago perhaps even penalties and reparations to those affected.”
      -Pablo Orozco, New River Committee

©Amanda Keller Konya


Untitled (4) from the Specimens from North America’s Most Polluted River series

“I hunt the Imperial Valley. One morning we saw green fog hanging over the river. If I did not see it with my own eyes I would not have believed it. The whole river smells like a damn shithouse. And these bright people use it to cross? No wonder health care in America is on the rise. They get sick and we fix them for free. Wonderful!!”                                          

    - Roadfatigue, You Tube

©Amanda Keller Konya


Untitled (6) from the Specimens from North America’s Most Polluted River series

“I mean there is only so much you can do you know and just follow the guy.  I am not going to go in the water other than to save somebody’s life or something like that but not to catch somebody.”
      - Sgt. Gonzalo Gerardo, Calexico Police Dept.

©Amanda Keller Konya


Untitled (8) from the Specimens from North America’s Most Polluted River series

“A woman who drowned in the New River was trampled before she died.  The woman was part of a group of 40 illegal immigrants being smuggled into the United States through the New River.  The group apparently attempted to scale a border patrol net set up in the waterway; it collapsed.  Others in the group trampled the woman before she drowned, her identity has not yet been released to the public.”
      - Doug Currin, KSWT 13 News

©Amanda Keller Konya


Untitled (10) from the Specimens from North America’s Most Polluted River series

“U.S. businesses operating maquiladoras in Mexicali, Baja California agreed to provide information to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding chemicals used, created and stored at the facilities operated by their subsidiaries along the New River.  Besides waste discharges from industrial plants, the New River carries raw sewage and pesticides north from Mexicali into Imperial County and the Salton Sea, 63 miles away.  Previous monitoring efforts have detected high levels of DDT, PCBs and other chemicals including chloroform,  1,1,1, - trichloroethane, toleune and xylene.”
      - Ron Mader, Mexicali’s New River Update

©Amanda Keller Konya

In my personal photographic practice I am often inspired to make imagery when I don’t understand or find something to be of particular concern.  Lately, in relation to photography I have been thinking about the language we use around photography (shoot, take, fire the shutter, capture) and how these terms promote problematic power structures within photography.  I’m taking care to decolonize my language of photography, especially in the classroom.  Retraining myself to use an alternative vocabulary (photograph instead of shoot, make/collaborate instead of take, release the shutter instead of fire the shutter, produce instead of capture) has been surprisingly challenging given how ingrained the concerning language is embedded in my vocabulary around the process of photography.