In 2015, a flood of contaminated water used to fight a fire at Indiana’s Warsaw Chemical Company spilled into nearby Winona Lake. Carrying a flood of commercial car wash dyes, the spill washed downhill from the plant, melting the February ice at the lake’s surface and leaving limp silhouettes of bluegill floating in water stained a deep blue.
As officials descended on Winona to gauge the extent of the damage, many feared the worst. A disastrous chemical spill would not only damage the beloved lake, but also hurt the economy of the community that depended on it. Yet, after conducting tests on the water, officials announced that the toxic compounds that spilled from the plant had dissipated to below detectable levels. The chemicals from the spill had practically disappeared, diluted away by Winona’s waters.
I was not at Winona at the time of the spill, yet news of it weighed heavily upon me. I had spent many summers swimming in the lake’s seaweed-ribboned waters and visiting my grandparents, whose lakeside cottage sits a few hundred meters from the site of the Warsaw Chemical spill. A kindergarten teacher and church organist, my grandmother had lived on Winona until 2003, when she passed away from breast cancer. I was nine years old at the time, and in the wake of her death I grew up surrounded by overheard rumors that her illness could have been traced to the factories ringing Winona’s northern shore.
The Warsaw Chemical spill, then, felt like proof to the stories I had been hearing for much of my life. After the spill, I began to use photography to investigate these stories, seeking to create a portrait of Winona Lake’s environmental situation. I also sought to contextualize these environmental questions in the narratives surrounding my grandmother’s death and her impact on my life. The project that resulted, Where Does That Flower Bloom, investigates how these narratives – the personal, the environmental – have intertwined to shape my understanding of a space that feels equal parts welcoming and hostile.
Making the photos for Where Does That Flower Bloom required a great deal of circling – circling again and again through my grandmother’s home, through the surrounding towns and industrial parks, walking the shore of the lake itself in search of photos that reflected my thoughts. The scenes I settled on drew heavily from works such as Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota and Ron Jude’s Lago, as well as photos that artists like William Eggleston and Todd Hido have used to portray domestic space. In photographing such spaces, I sought out compositions that could act as markers of my own search to reconcile the environmental and personal dimensions of loss – a process that wove together disparate scenes to form a landscape loosely tied together by memory.
Literary influences also played a major role in putting together this landscape. I remain fascinated by the works of authors such as Susanne Antonetta, whose book, Body Toxic, blends the environmental and the personal to beautiful and devastating effect. The personal echoes of environmental degradation that Antonetta deploys – water full of “good iron, good lead, mercury, cadmium,” beach parties held on a toxic bay – stuck with me throughout the project, informing the way I investigated the lake’s environmental situation and its relation to my personal experiences.
Confronting the complex relationship between photography and ambiguity has also been central to Where Does That Flower Bloom. As I worked to explore the narratives surrounding Winona Lake, uncertainty always returned to the forefront – uncertainty over the lake’s environmental future, uncertainty over the impact it may have on my family and those who live in the shadow of Warsaw’s factories.
My study of the lake’s environmental situation furthered this uncertainty; while Winona itself is considered healthy by most measures, it is impossible to quantify how long that may prove true, how long the lake will remain the pristine environment of my childhood summers. Tracing my grandmother’s impact on my own life felt equally ambiguous at times, as I sought to understand a person I only knew from the limited perspective of a child. This uncertainty came to define a central arc of the project, as I sought to depict its impact on my own relation to Winona.
Communicating this uncertainty through photography, though, posed a particular challenge. Photography, as the late John Berger noted, is a notoriously ambiguous medium; a photo may communicate certain facts about its subject, but the context in which the subject exists is largely stripped away by the borders of the image. In this way, ambiguity can become a hindrance to constructing a narrative through photography – hindrances complicated by the central presence of ambiguity as a narrative element throughout Where Does That Flower Bloom. Working to properly balance ambiguity has been a defining challenge while working on this project, and a challenge that will evolve as I look to put the project into book form.
Considering the end product of Where Does That Flower Bloom has also led me to question the limits of when a photographic project is truly “over.” Since I first considered the project finished, I have continued to visit the house on Winona, as I expect to for the rest of my life. Each time I return, I find myself taking photos that could easily fit into the work. These photos pose a particularly thorny issue; though my reasons for returning have shifted, I have not found it easy to divorce my contemporary experiences from those that first informed the project.
These perspectives have produced a sort of layering that affects the familiar landscapes surrounding Winona, leading me to question whether a project as personal as this will ever be finished. It is a question I suspect many photographers who depict their personal surroundings must ask themselves, and one I will continue to grapple with as I return to Winona Lake.