The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is a very fragile spring-fed estuary, north of Tampa, on Florida’s Gulf coast. I was overwhelmed and captivated by its lush, primeval beauty on my first visit over 30 years ago and have photographed there extensively since 2004. The dense hardwood forests were festooned with moss, ferns and bromeliads and the fresh water creeks were a clear azure. There are other similar estuaries nearby but the Chassahowitzka River and the surrounding wetlands are part of a National Wildlife Refuge and the river itself is protected as an Outstanding Florida Water.
Several years ago however, saltwater began creeping up into the spring creeks, killing the salt-intolerant hardwood trees. Rising sea levels were partially the cause but the intrusion was worsened when the Southwest Florida Water Management District, whose primary purpose is to protect the state’s water resources, was appointed by Florida Governer Rick Scott to determine if the wetlands could survive with less fresh water. This resulting new minimum flow would allow the state to increase the pumping of fresh water for large-scale developments and agricultural interests many, many miles away. The drawdown of fresh water for these new upstream consumers has taken fresh water away from the aquifer that feeds Chassahowitzka’s springs.
What had been dense, semi-tropical forest is now mostly an open plain of grasses relieved by palms and dying hardwood trees. The swamp will never again be as it was even six years ago. At first, I would turn my back and canoe upriver toward the springs to photograph where the saltwater hadn’t reached. In 2014, I began to photograph in the salt-damaged sawgrass savannas as a way of reckoning with the ecosystem loss and of understanding what Florida is becoming. I’ve made numerous trips to the Chassahowitzka over the last two years to work on this project. I narrowed my focus to a small, remote area that I know and love and which is reachable only by boat at high tides. Photographing there can be difficult as there are very few dry places where I can walk and put my tripod down. In many cases, it has been necessary to photograph from a canoe with a hand-held camera and high-speed film in order to access the areas where I can get a close look at the saltwater damage.
My approach has not been to photograph the swamp in a dry, dispassionate manner. I am too close to this landscape. Instead, I have interpreted the destruction in a more personal, subjective way, using my sadness and anger to help describe what has become of this delicate, verdant place. My intention has been to portray the landscape with respect, nuance and beauty.
There is an elegiac beauty in these evolving wetlands but the process of documenting it has been difficult for me. As a native Floridian, it is very painful to see such a lush, verdant landscape decimated. It has also been distressing to work on these photographs.
BIO: Benjamin Dimmitt was born and raised on the Gulf coast of Florida. He graduated from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL and also studied at the International Center of Photography in New York, NY, Santa Fe Photographic Workshop in Santa Fe, NM, Santa Reparata Graphic Arts Centre in Florence, Italy, and City and Guild Arts School in London, England.
Benjamin moved to New York City after college and held an adjunct professor position at the International Center of Photography there from 2001-2013. He now lives and works in Asheville, NC, and teaches workshops in Florida and North Carolina.
He photographs wetlands and forests using a medium format camera and film, and makes gelatin silver prints in his darkroom. Benjamin uses his camera to investigate interdependence, competition, survival, and mortality in the landscape around him.
His work is represented by Clayton Galleries in Tampa, FL and is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Florida Museum of Photographic Art, and Eckerd College among many others. Benjamin’s photographs have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, School of International Center of Photography, NYC, American Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, LA, Florida Museum of Photographic Art, Tampa, FL, and 25 CPW Gallery, NYC.
His next solo exhibit will be at the Southeast Center for Photography in Greenville, SC in September, October 2017 where he will be showing his Primitive Florida and Chassahowitzka Saltwater Intrusion work.
All images ©Benjamin Dimmitt