Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

A photographer’s 7,200-mile journey following the mighty Mississippi

March 14, 2018 at 8:30 AM

Winona, Minn. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Alma, Wis. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)

Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photojournalist Michael S. Williamson enjoys a good road trip. Either for work or pleasure, he has often crisscrossed the country, repeatedly tackled the transcontinental Lincoln Highway and driven Route 66 at least a dozen times. But until he started photographing infrastructure along the Mississippi River, Williamson had never undertaken any extensive north-south journeys. “I was up for the challenge of following a waterway versus a roadway,” he said.

While the river is only about 2,300 miles in length, Williamson chased good light, competed with snowmobiles, and zigzagged across some of the 170 bridges to photograph the river’s main sights and towns. “The river is the state line in most places, so if you drive the river north to south to see the western side you must start all over and travel south to north to see the states on the eastern side,” he explained.

The Mississippi River watershed — the third-largest in the world — drains an area of about 1.2 million square miles, including all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces, and about 40 percent of the continental United States. The river itself travels through 10 states, and it takes about 90 days for water that leaves Lake Itasca, the river’s source, to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

From ice fishing up north to jet-skiing down south, communities along the river differed in culture as much as climate, Williamson found. But, he says, they were all shaped by their proximity to the river.

“I made lots of photos of old bridges and tall levees that protected the towns. The river wasn’t necessarily in every frame,” he said. “But, you knew it was close by.”

Trempealeau, Wis. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Davenport, Iowa. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Little Falls, Minn. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
La Grange, Mo. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Clinton, Iowa. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Cairo, Ill. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Alton, Ill. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Ferguson, Ark. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Empire, La. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Vicksburg, Miss. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)
Elaine, Ark. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/)

Read more on In Sight:
A voyage along Congo’s rivers in search of a virus

A closer look at the tallest trees in the world

What 7 Post photographers discovered after having 102 conversations with people in all 50 states plus D.C.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.


Karly Domb Sadof is an award-winning photo editor at The Washington Post, currently working on the national news desk. She is also a contributing writer for In Sight, The Post’s photography blog. She joined The Post in 2016.

MaryAnne Golon is the Director of Photography at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2012, MaryAnne was the director of photography at Time Magazine and a senior photography editor there for more than 20 years. She graduated with honors from The University of Florida with a B.S. in Journalism.

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