Bottled Desires: How Sant Khalsa captured the commodification of thirst in the early 2000s

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Between 2000 and 2002, Khalsa photographed more than 200 water stores across the US. Now, 60 of the gelatin-silver photographs are published in a new photobook

In the mid 1970s, fresh from art college, Sant Khalsa left New York for the American West, trading “concrete, metal, glass and verticality” for “horizontal, open spaces”. Previously focused on people-based photography, her interests expanded with the change in environment. In 1980, when a major forest fire ripped through her community in San Bernardino, California, Khalsa went out and captured it. “[It] really brought my attention to the power of the natural world,” she says. “A key realisation was the lack of water. That began my journey as a landscape photographer, and my obsession with this natural element.”

Khalsa spent the following decades documenting water in myriad contexts, from Paving Paradise, a 30-year project photographing California’s tumultuous Santa Ana River, to Watershed (1999), a sculptural installation probing the bottled water industry. It was during research for the latter that Khalsa came across the entrepreneurial phenomenon of water stores, which led to her next photo series, Western Waters and now a newly published photobook: Crystal Clear || Western Waters.

© Sant Khalsa.

“I was researching the word ‘watershed’ online and this store came up in Palmdale, California called ‘Water Shed’. I was curious, and drove an hour and a half to the western Mojave Desert to check it out,” she recalls. “There I found a retail water store in a strip mall selling reverse-osmosis purified water, which customers would collect in plastic bottles. I learned this was a huge business that was growing throughout the arid southwestern states.”

Fascinated by “the implied ‘necessity’ of these stores (based on consumer fear, and sometimes the reality that the tap water was not safe to drink)” and “the simultaneous absurdity of the way these commercial venues sought to represent a ‘natural’ experience”, Khalsa searched online to locate more. Between 2000 and 2002, she road-tripped to more than 200 water stores across Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Nevada, and photographed each one. Sixty of those gelatin-silver photographs are now published in the new photobook. 

Inspired by Walker Evans’ social documentary approach to storefronts and signage, Ed Ruscha’s deadpan documentation of gas stations, and the industrial typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Khalsa took an “objective, frontal approach” to lensing the names, signage and architecture of these stores. Alongside advertisements for sunglasses or ice cream, simple typography promised consumers “Y2K SUPER WATER”, “PERFECT DRINKING WATER”, “KING WATER”, “PARADISE WATER”, and more. 

“I was drawn to the ones that had unique names, referring to natural water sites like ‘lakes’, ‘rivers’ and ‘springs’, or using descriptive words like ‘clear’, ‘cool’ and ‘fresh’, or elements of spirituality like ‘paradise’ and ‘heavenly’,” Khalsa explains. “My work as an artist and activist is about our relationship with the natural world, or our disconnection with it. So I found these stores really ironic – the idea that you go to the ‘River’ store to fetch your water, and somehow it makes you closer to nature. Or you bring your plastic container to a store that promises to make you ‘happier’.”

Upon completing the series in 2002, Khalsa wondered how the photographs might be read in future: “Would they be a historical document of a fleeting fad, or the foundation of what may become commonplace in our society?” With two-thirds of the world’s population predicted to face water shortages by 2025 as a result of climate change, her project feels even more prescient today. 

“Water quality and water scarcity are bigger issues now than they were twenty years ago,” Khalsa says. “I think Western Waters helps us understand how many people view the natural world as a commodity, and human desire as a never-ending thirst, rather than appreciating our responsibility to protect and preserve the water that sustains all life. The project is about bringing awareness that we are nature. We’re intimately connected to it, not superior to or distinct from it.”

Crystal Clear || Western Waters by Sant Khalsa is available to order now from Minor Matters.