SERS Stories: Water brings art and science together

Can art and science be brought together fruitfully in ways that lead to new, deeper and more enduring understanding of complex environmental problems? Can art open new pathways to understanding and caring about the environment?

Rob de Loe by field with camera set upWater is complicated. It touches all of our lives in countless ways every day, yet it’s possible to live a long life and not truly understand how water works. Why do streams flow? Why do floods and droughts occur? How does what we do on the land affect water? When people don’t know the answers to questions like these, they may not understand and support the work of water managers. Water experts often make matters worse when talking to members of the public by using specialized technical terms such as “watershed”, “runoff”, and “hydraulic gradient”. We need other ways of engaging people about water.

As a water governance researcher and practitioner for the past three decades, I’ve seen first-hand that art can excite people and make them curious about water in ways that technical studies and reports alone cannot. Importantly, I believe that scientific and artistic perspectives on water can be complementary. When they come together effectively, new, different, and perhaps deeper understandings of water may be possible.

I’ve been a photographer longer than I’ve been a water expert, but those sides of me have been kept apart during the last few decades. Two years ago it dawned on me that they don’t need to be separate anymore. SERS is one of the very few places where my art side and my science side can come together professionally to explore the questions I posed at the outset.

In this next phase of my career, I’m winding down my work on water governance, and launching a new program of art making, scholarship and teaching focused on using photography to bridge the gap between art and science. Naturally I’m starting with water.

Gallary of Rob's work - black and white photos of branches, water, rocks and leaves

A current project I’m working on is ephemeral and intermittent streams. These are tiny, unnamed flows of water that help keep rivers flowing. They usually appear only after a rainfall, so many people think they’re just wet spots on a favourite hiking trail rather than a key part of the hydrologic cycle. The finished project will appear on my website first, but I’m looking forward to a larger public exhibition in future. Other examples of projects and works in progress are available here: