David Hanson ’00 Writer, Photographer and Documentarian
“People are endlessly fascinating to me, and identifying as a writer or photographer, no matter how general that title is, gives a rare license to ask people questions.”
“When I was a student at W&L, the term ‘food justice’ didn’t exist,” said David Hanson ’00, the author of “Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival” (University of California Press, 2011) and director of the award-winning documentary “Who Owns the Water” (2014). “The issues of poverty and food insecurity weren’t on my agenda at all.”
But that’s where his education at W&L eventually led him. “I ended up at W&L because I wanted a small school with good academics, and I wanted the chance to play baseball during college. Also, at that time, I hadn’t strayed too far from my home in Atlanta, so I wanted to stay in the South.”
He discovered geology through Professor Dave Harbor’s Intro to Geology class. “I instantly connected with the stories of how the landscape has taken its shape over time,” said Hanson. “I always enjoyed Professor Harbor’s incessant questioning and curiosity and genuine joy about the story of geomorphology — basically, why the land looks the way it does.” English, particularly with Professor Dabney Stuart, was also a favorite. “It came relatively easy to me, compared to math, so I gravitated toward it. Again, the stories attracted me.
“Without knowing it as I entered college, I was already a liberal arts person — curious about a lot of things. W&L encouraged that.”
Since graduating with a double major in geology and English, he’s worked as a field science instructor in Olympic Park Institute and Yosemite National Institute and as a features editor for Cottage Living Magazine. He is now a freelance writer, photographer and videographer, most recently producing stories for the nonprofit WhyHunger about food justice — how food is grown, processed, transported, distributed and consumed. “I like telling stories, and there are a lot of them out there,” he said.
While he was living in Birmingham, Alabama, and working for Cottage Living Magazine, he began covering smart-growth development, particularly urban farmers and the consumers who wanted access to fresh food. “I could see there was a movement happening,” said Hanson. “Downtown Birmingham was an empty core. There were a lot of vacant lots, but some of those were being used to grow food. Working those plots supplied local restaurants, supplemented the dinner table or provided job training. I was interested in looking for origin stories — talking to people about this at the grass-roots level.”
He added, “Food brings us together, usually three times a day. Sometimes we eat alone, but often we with eat with others. But on a systemic level, food can divide us and play on our inequalities. Over the course of time, communities have lost control over their access to food.”
He and a colleague, Edwin Marty, hatched a plan to explore those topics and secured a book contract with the University of California Press for “Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival.”
As recounted in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of the W&L alumni magazine, Hanson and his brother, Michael ’03, along with Marty, hit the road in a short Blue Bird school bus that ran on a combination of recycled vegetable grease and diesel fuel. Christened Lewis Lewis, the bus was outfitted with three bunks and two desks and conveyed them, with some breakdowns along the way, to a dozen cities, including Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago and New York.
“Lewis Lewis proved to be a pretty good conversation opener with people, maybe because it smelled like French fries,” he said.
Along the way, Hanson collected stories about refugees from Burma and Somalia raising crops to supplement their income and as a resource for creating native recipes. In Detroit, he met with members of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, which offers an alternate curriculum to help teenage mothers and their children learn viable skills through raising livestock and building chicken coops. He interviewed rooftop gardeners in New York City about supplying fresh produce to restaurants.
“I like seeing the different solutions to growing fresh food that’s happening on these urban farms,” said Hanson. “These small gardens won’t feed the masses, but they bring us closer to the food we eat. It’s a new frontier, and there are lots of approaches to growing our food supply. I hope the next step will involve widespread policy changes that ensure access to fresh, nutritious food for everyone.”
Recently, Hanson added documentary filmmaker to his résumé. He grew up three miles from the Chattahoochee River, in Georgia, and it became the focal point for his film documenting the decades-old battle among Georgia, Alabama and Florida for the rights to the water from it. Not so long ago, the American South seemed impervious to water-shortage problems, but the needs of rapidly growing urban areas, such as Atlanta, began to clash with agricultural and recreational uses.
“I was attracted to the idea of a river journey,” he said. “I’m always drawn to stories wrapped in adventure, and a 500-mile canoe trip down the Chattahoochee from its headwaters in Tennessee to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico seemed the best way to explore an endangered natural resource. I wanted to let the river set the pace and to meet the people who lived along its banks.”
His brother joined him once again, and the two spent a month paddling canoes downriver (some portage was also required), talking to many people along the way — fishermen, environmentalists, houseboat owners, local residents, oyster farmers — “people who had unique native knowledge about the river.”
“Who Owns the Water” garnered widespread praise, winning the 2013 AI-AP International Motion Award; Best Documentary, 2014 Lookout Wild Film Festival; 2013 Mountainfilm Grant; and Official Selection, 2014 Mountainfilm Festival.
Like the issues surrounding food insecurity, figuring out a solution to reasonable use of water among three states is complicated. Hanson hopes a coalition he met on his river journey, the Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint Stakeholders group, a watershed-wide coalition of industry, conservation, community and business interests, will make some headway. “They’ve been meeting for years, discussing all the issues, and have aggregated their resources to fund scientific studies to devise a plan for sharing the water,” said Hanson. “The latest lawsuit, however, has gummed up the process.”
While the tug-of-war continues, Hanson will keep on gathering stories and writing not only about the river he knows so well, but other environmental issues, too.
“I like being outside, creating adventures or expeditions that offer physical challenges and allow me to see, experience and live close to the ground in new landscapes, but that also put me in touch with people,” said Hanson. “The meeting-people thing is really just an ongoing journal form. It’s a way to map where I’ve been, but also to learn about the world through others. People are endlessly fascinating to me, and identifying as a writer or photographer, no matter how general that title is, gives a rare license to ask people questions, at least for someone relatively introverted like myself.”