12 July 2019

The Illusion of Limitless Water

12 July 2019 - Written by Laurence Cornet

In black and white, John Trotter documents the use of water from the Colorado River, tackling the social, political, and environmental impact of the way it’s dealt with. Spanning years and kilometres, his ongoing essay is a dire political outcry.

© John Trotter, from the series No Agua No Vida

When photographer John Trotter started to work on the Colorado River in 2001, he had no idea it would be a nearly 20 year-long documentary journey. He started with a couple of trips to the American West, and realised year after year the extent of its subject, from the United States to Mexico. “In the state of things, the Colorado River is very small – it’s a desert river - but 40 million people depend on its water”, Trotter says. With its dizzying spider web of canals, the Colorado River provides water up to Tucson, Arizona, 500 kilometres away from the Hoover Dam – the centrepiece of the entire Colorado River control. Seen at night in Trotter’s photographs, the massive complex filled with lights and concrete gives some chills.

More recently, Trotter focused on Phoenix, Arizona, which has been declared the least sustainable city of its size in the world. “This massive development, vomited out all over the desert, would not be possible without the water that comes from the Colorado River. Yet, they're trying to build that sort of new Silicon Valley there, as if everything's going to continue and climate change isn't going to make it Hell”, Trotter comments.

© John Trotter, from the series No Agua No Vida

Trying to show what is not always visible, Trotter depicts scenes of irrational water use, of environmental changes, and uses a lot of metaphors picked in everyday life, such as this boy carrying two toy-buckets of water out of a dreamlike lake. “What I'm trying to show is the people's connection to the river and at the same time, describe their disconnection. They're absolutely dependent on this but they don't think about it”, he notes. People don’t have to carry heavy buckets for kilometres to drink or shower. Water is just provided, seemingly limitless - so limitless that golf courses are built without the shadow of a doubt in the middle of the desert, and celebrated as normalcy with wireless guitars and geysers of waters.

“We're disconnected from the incredible waste and pollution that our lives make for the world. It's a crazy idea that somehow our ingenuity and our technology will save us, a fantasy that somehow we can just build another dam to store water that doesn't exist”, he says. “This river beautifully describes who we are as a country. It tells a lot about the culture that we have in the United States – this American, capitalist mindset of maximising the profit for everything, above anything else. It just describes the world that we've created and we’re living in, at least in the United States, but also in many places in the world.”

© John Trotter, from the series No Agua No Vida


John Trotter is a native of Missouri, in the Midwestern United States. He worked as a newspaper photojournalist for 14 years, on stories large and small, local and international, before focusing on a long-term project about water management in the American West. Follow him on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.


Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

3 minutes

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