Photographer Krista Schlyer Documents the Anacostia River as its Future Hangs in the Balance

By Phil Hutinet on November 10, 2015
Photo credit: ©Krista Schlyer/
Photo credit: ©Krista Schlyer/


Concurrently published with Capital Community News’ East of the River publication in the November 2015 print edition and online.

As Washingtonians, we currently live at a critical moment in time as we witness profound changes in our city’s physical landscape resulting in demographic changes not seen in over a half-a-century. As discussions on who will have access to our changing city—as it gentrifies and the specter of displacement looms over those who cannot afford the skyrocketing price of real estate—another series of changes have begun in earnest along the Anacostia River from its confluence with the Potomac at Poplar Point to its headwaters in suburban Maryland. The resulting changes along DC’s second river can lead to either the creation of an unmatched natural wildlife preserve in one of nation’s most densely populated urban areas or another overdeveloped, deforested environment with a handful of developers profiting from short-term gains at the expense of public lands that would have benefited future generations.

Photographer Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier resident, has spent the past five years connecting with the Anacostia River. Schlyer, a self-identified Conservation Photographer, combines documentary photography with fine art to connect people to the ecology by highlighting its beauty and value.

Schlyer, originally from the Midwest, grew up in a rural setting. A little over 15 years ago, her life took a radical turn as her boyfriend was diagnosed with an aggressive, untreatable form of cancer which took his life at 28. To help her cope with her unrelenting grief, Schlyer took a series of trips to national parks and began photographing what she saw. However, as Schlyer explains, “I wanted it to be about more than just nature photography.” Schlyer believes that when we, as human beings, are disconnected from our origins in nature, it has an adverse effect on our minds. During her travels through National Parks, Schlyer credits her connection to nature with her ability to cope with her grief. She explains that, “[things] started to make sense when I was in wild places.”

In an effort to place her growing body of work within a greater framework, Schlyer connected with the International league of Conservation Photographers. As a result, Schlyer began documenting the environmental impact of the wall along the US-Mexico border. Her resulting critically acclaimed work has led to a series of exhibitions, town-hall style discussions on immigration and the environment and, a book published by Texas A&M Press titled Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall.

Photo credit: ©Krista Schlyer/
Photo credit: ©Krista Schlyer/

Subsequently, in 2010, Schlyer embarked on project with the International Group of Conservation Photographers to document the Chesapeake Bay. Schlyer worked on capturing the Anacostia and the Potomac Rivers for the project. The experience led her to deepen her work by documenting the beauty and the struggles facing the Anacostia River. She has now collected a body of work derived from photographing the river which she uses to spearhead conservation advocacy through exhibitions, talks and articles.

Schlyer sees a lot of commonality between her work on the US-Mexico border wall and the Anacostia River. In both cases, Schlyer believes that “There is a strong environmental justice component. The [Anacostia] River has trudged a path with a community that has been historically poor. The US border with Mexico is one the poorest parts of US and neither [community] has had much political power.” However, Schlyer is more hopeful about the Anacostia’s future than the US-Mexico border as a series of efforts are underway to clean-up the river while the environmental degradation along the border wall grows worse.

The Anacostia Waterfront Trust, one of the organizations with whom Schlyer has partnered, formed to address three of the most pressing issues facing the Anacostia River as follows: 1. To speed up the process of cleaning up the river, in particular dealing with street pollutants that wash into the storm drains 2. The $2 billion sewage tunnel which help remediate most of the raw sewage that mixes with storm drain water during heavy downpours and 3. Legacy toxins from the Navy Yard and other former waterfront industries. While progress is being made on 1. and 2., the third issue of toxins lying in the sediment at the bottom of the river remains an ongoing battle between the US Navy and various Federal and DC agencies.

Photo credit: ©Krista Schlyer/
Photo credit: ©Krista Schlyer/

Despite the unevenness of the river’s clean-up efforts, Schlyer has brought the discussion of the river’s future to the next generation of stakeholders—DC’s youth. Through the Daniel DiTondo Foundation, named after her deceased boyfriend, Schlyer has sought to connect young people to their river through summer camps and other programing which includes science and art as part of the curriculum.

Beyond Schlyer’s advocacy for the Anacostia River through her photography, the fine art component of her work stands on its own merit. As an artist, Schlyer explains that “I try to be on the river as much as possible. I like to go out when there is ice on the river and capture the different seasons. One of the focuses for me is the idea of biodiversity in cities. We are better off as people and have a greater wellbeing when we can connect with wild creatures and spaces. Fine art is about value—everybody values wildlife or nature but it’s often in the background. My hope is to make it a little more present. ”

More than a century later, like Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs or Theodore Roosevelt, Schlyer’s work is part of an inherently American tradition which reveres nature and places an emphasis on conservation for future generations. While efforts are underway to clean-up DC’s eastern waterway, development pressures threaten to negate these gains. As an example, Schlyer cites the construction of a new Whole Foods in College Park, MD that will destroy a forest along the Anacostia’s watershed. “There wasn’t even a conversation about the development’s impact on the river” laments Schlyer. As the urban area around the Anacostia River develops, Schlyer hopes that developers can work with the public to protect a “wild place,” home to foxes, turkeys and bald eagles to name a few of the diverse fauna which coexist adjacent to one of the nation’s most populated urban areas.

Krista Schlyer will be presenting her work as part of an artist talk during Fotoweek 2015.  Her talk is scheduled for Saturday, November 14 from 12-1pm at 2801 16th Street NW.  For more information click HERE.