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Mason students shed light on water shortage problems through art

May 18, 2016   /   by Jamie Rogers

Light boxes by Mason students in a documentary photography class represent a poetic response to the idea of water and power. Photo by Jamie Rogers.

Kira Coleman stared intently at the sunlight as it made its way through the small windows of her basement.

She’s a graphic designer, not a photographer, Coleman said, but she’d been given a challenging assignment to capture water and power in a series of photographs.

“An entire pattern was being created,” Coleman said of the light as it flooded into the room, parts of it bouncing off a metallic surface. She thought of solar power.

That’s when she made her picture.

That picture and others, some showing the reflection of neon lights in puddles of water collected on the road, are now part of a light box she made for “In Memory of Water.” The collaborative project was created by 12 students in a documentary photography class at George Mason University, where Coleman was a senior this spring.

“The project is a poetic response to the idea of water and power. It’s a contemporary take on water issues as we see them today,” said George Mason art professor Sue Wrbican, who taught the course.

The students were each given a photo of water distribution during the early 20th century and were urged to go out and create their own modern photographs of the limited, life-sustaining resource, Wrbican said.

Each student created a light box—a translucent, backlit surface used to illuminate film negatives or photos—to display a series of historical and contemporary shots of water.

The light boxes are on display May 14-24 at LATELA Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. The gallery is owned by Marta Staudinger, a Mason alumna.

Each of the 12 light boxes contains the students’ photos along with the historical water photo. Each box also includes a  brief poetic statement written for the project by Silvana Straw, a popular writer and poet in the National Capital area.

The project is meant to bring attention to water shortages in the world. Wrbican’s documentary photography class included in-depth discussions about current water issues, such as the one in Flint, Mich. Coleman said the class discussions made her think deeply about the effects of not having enough clean water.

Qais Faqier Pur, a junior criminology, law and society major, said Wrbican “worked them hard” throughout the semester, but is happy this project and others came out well.

During the class, he had to go out and interview subjects, a skill he thinks he can apply to his own major, Pur said.

The light boxes are an artistic contribution to the 100th Meridian Project, led by Rick Davis, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. The project, which received a 2015 seed grant from Mason’s Provost Office, explores water shortages and the surrounding issues of policy, science and finances.