What Makes Grass Grow in The Desert is an ongoing, explorative project by photographer James Bannister aiming to reveal the cracks in Las Vegas’ facade of success and glamour. James uses photography to “expose the gap between what we would like people to see and the image that we actually project,” a gap that Diane Arbus once described as “the gap between intention and effect”. In terms of Las Vegas, James uses his camera to explore the disparity between the vision that the casino hotel owners want us to see, the sparseness of the natural environment and its poorer communities that tend to inhabit these areas.
Las Vegas is a city that wouldn’t exist naturally – situated in a desert and only a two hour drive from Death Valley, famed for being the hottest place on the planet and the driest in North America. It receives only four inches of rain per year and so water is pumped to the city via the Hoover Dam which has drained over four-trillion gallons of water since its completion. Despite the fact that water is an incredibly sparse resource, Las Vegas uses 219 gallons of water per person per day, one of the highest figures in the United States (in comparison, San Fransisco stands at 49 gallons). “It seems illogical to put 53 golf courses in one of the driest places on the planet,” James told us, a number which sees Vegas take the crown for the highest concentration of golf courses in the world.
It would seem fitting for James to present this contradiction through a series of both Las Vegas’ bright lights and indulgence alongside the reality of its struggling locals – Vegas was one of the worst hit cities in the latest US housing crisis with one-in-ten homes in some state of foreclosure. However, he explores this notion through a much more sensitive and illuminating metaphor: grass. “In the desert, grass has become a status symbol,” he explained to us, “developers use grass, trees and greenery to entice potential buyers to the aspirational districts of the city.” In contrast, the poorer areas have little grass, just dust, concrete and shrubbery. In a desert, the most precious and in-demand thing is water and to have a lawn is to be in possession of that thing – you can afford to waste your most vital resource and, in turn, potentially take away life from a fellow citizen.
However, James explained that “to have a lawn here runs deeper than just a status symbol. This subversion of nature is a further medal around the neck of man’s psychological triumph in conquering nature”. What Makes Grass Grow in The Desert reveals how, in creating this oasis of consumption, humankind has once again attempted to domesticate and normalise a nature beyond our control.
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