The San Gabriel River is 75 miles long, beginning in the San Gabriel Mountains and ending in the ocean at Seal Beach. The river acts as a geographical divide and flows through coastal, desert, and mountainous habitats. Recently, Ashwin Balakrishnan PO ‘09 decided to document the river and the communities that it runs through. After months of photographing different parts of the river and talking to the people who live around it, Balakrishnan narrowed his photographs down to a small collection that best showcases the beauty of the San Gabriel River and the stories behind his journey. The photographs were displayed in the Smith Campus Center Gallery as the exhibition “A People’s Ecology of L.A. County” starting on Apr. 8
In order to gain some perspective behind this project, I sat down with Balakrishnan to ask about his inspiration, goals, and challenges behind documenting the San Gabriel River. After speaking with Balakrishnan and having a chance to view the exhibit, I found that there is much more to the project than pretty pictures of the river. Through his work, Balakrishnan attempts to expose deeper social issues that make the viewer question how the river is used and the politics behind it.
As an environmental analysis major, Balakrishnan says that he has always been interested in how people relate to their environment and how the physical landscape reveals a society’s character. After taking a photography class two years ago with professor Sheila Pinkel, Balakrishnan became more interested in documenting the L.A. environment. Last semester, on a hike into the San Gabriel Mountains, he came across the San Gabriel River and decided to investigate how communities around the river use it in various ways.
The project took over five months to complete. Balakrishnan found that the river spans a great diversity of spaces—both natural and man-made—and passes through communities with people from all different types of socio-economic backgrounds.
“I started talking to people that use the river and work along the river, like the gold miners,” he said. “I wanted to know how people manipulated the river and how they relate to it. How does the river affect them culturally, politically, and socially? How is the river being used and how are people exploiting or protecting it?”
In investigating some of these questions, Balakrishnan found that locals use the river in a number of different ways. Balakrishnan found that for many of the gold miners, searching for gold was their main source of income. One of his favorite photos from the project shows a black-and-white portrait of a gold miner near the river: “I really like that shot because it was the first portrait of a person that I took and it was the first conversation I had had with someone about how they relate to the river,” said Balakrishnan. “He was a very humble man and it was nice to engage with him, especially after coming from campus where our environment is so different. After hearing his story, I realized I wanted to keep going back so I could hear from other people.”
As Balakrishnan followed the river from the mountains into urban areas, he found that the river transforms from a mountain stream into a canal surrounded by concrete. In these areas Balakrishnan noticed how the concrete walls surrounding the river acted as a space where people from the local community could communicate with one another. “I noticed that graffiti artists would use the river to communicate through graffiti and that others would use it speak out to people in their community,” he said. “On one trip I noticed that someone had written the name Angelina on one side of concrete wall of the canal and just under her name it said: Prom? So it has kind of become an open canvas.”
Throughout the project, Balakrishnan would typically go to one area of the river at a time, alternating between public transportation, driving, and biking to get there. At one point, he and some friends biked more than half of the river in one go.
“We rode along the river and covered 40 miles in one day,” he said. “It was a really great experience because I had never biked that kind of distance before in just one day, and I was also able to see the transformation of the river between the different communities and habitats. Before I would just be going up and photographing a certain area, whereas on the bike ride I was able to see so many different parts of the river in one day.”
Balakrishnan says that one of the goals for this project was to question our idea of nature.
“The river has many different environments,” said Balakrishnan. “It runs through the mountains but also through urban areas. I wanted people to see that even though it has concrete walls on either side and power-lines running above, it is still beautiful and can be considered a part of nature.”
Another goal was to see how the river acts as a geographical divide that continues to change along with the racial makeup of each community.
“There are lots of racial undertones and class undertones and I wanted to expose that,” he said. “I also wanted to tell the stories of the people living in the community along the river, the ones that no one usually hears about.” For instance, some of Balakrishnan’s photos show reservoirs in areas where local community members have a harder time keeping their water clean from chemicals because they lack the financial resources to do so—a situation that is not as common in predominately white communities. Because of these issues, Balakrishnan hopes viewers will question the places we live in and how we live in them.