This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
In 2011, American photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz got to researching how different cultures perceive water, the exploitation this leads to, and the challenges we face to preserve our planet's most vital resource. A year later, he started traveling around the world to shoot relevant stories. Today, his body of work covers eight countries on four continents, and is supported by Water Aid, Earth Watch, WWF, VSCO, and the UN.
Abdulaziz's striking images look at the fragility of life but, more importantly, they hold up a mirror to how our individual behavior affects the collective's quality of life. To mark the UN's World Water Day, I caught up with the photographer before the opening of his new exhibition in London. We went through a series of previously unseen images and talked about his groundbreaking work.
VICE: Your project has so far covered eight countries, but let's start with China and India. What do you think it is about the images from these two places that makes them work so well together?
Mustafah Abdulaziz: I traced and tracked one river across many different parts of both countries—the Ganges and the Yangtze. This allowed for a huge amount of insight into how people behave toward their water resources—whether that's to do with religion, local industry, transportation, or urbanization. That's what the project is really about: how we interact with water, regardless of our race or country. Whatever the river, there were repetitive behaviors that were interesting to examine.
What were some of these repetitive behaviors?
Human beings generally interact with water as part of their environment. But we also see water as an object—to be manipulated and used, measured and controlled. The way we control such a vast resource reveals how we believe we should be using our environment—sadly, that behavior tends to be exploitative a lot of the time.
The scale of exploitation in China is massive. But the way people interact with water is way less esoteric than in India, where people abuse the river, while also believing it's holy. I feel the perception of water in China really comes through in one particular image—the photograph of the flowers on top of a glass case displaying a model of the first Yangtze river bridge in Nanjing. That photo is about those values.
Water doesn't even feature in this image though. They haven't even bothered to paint it in.
Exactly. That detail is what the entire image is really about. My desire was to divide the space so that the viewer might realize how people project their own views upon the Yangtze: The fresh flowers, the idea of making an elaborate diorama that includes a small boat—they've tried to create an inspiring picture, but ultimately, it's a hollow one. It represents the Chinese fascination with technological growth over the true thing, which needs to be preserved.
It's really interesting to see your more recent work, which focuses on how people behave in environments where water is not being as challenged.
I'm fascinated by the banal—like the act of watering your lawn in a drought. These types of images can be even more powerful against the backdrop of a crisis.
Are you referring to your work in California? That photo of a ridiculously healthy golf course surrounded by the desert really stuck with me.
Golf courses are interesting because they're places where people meet, so water is something that will always be facilitated. By flying above that golf course in a helicopter, I was able to see how ridiculous that scenario is. I'm also interested in the seeming prosaicness of excessive lawns and flowers outside someone's home; it's a beautiful picture, but it's also absurd. I'm not going to knock on someone's door and ask them how much water they use, because in this project it's not important. What is important is that people think that it's OK to do that. They see this behavior as more important than maintaining their environment. That's the concept I'm playing with.
Between 1990 and 2010, about two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, which must have meant better sanitation, pipe supplies, and protected wells. Have you witnessed this progression and if so, how?
In 2012, I was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during the cholera outbreak. Every time a case of cholera was reported, it was a group of women volunteers who would be the first to respond. They were local women who had the trust of their community, but they also knew what immediate measures to take in order to prevent the rapid decline in collective health that comes with cholera. It is limited but useful knowledge, and I think it's also incredibly effective—especially if it's amplified by direction from NGOs. It's important to make communities feel empowered—that's what gives individuals the ability to make a difference.
Which image reflects this positive change the most for you?
This picture from Nigeria illustrates my point quite well. It's a very simple picture—it almost looks like a theater stage. This sole water pump provides clean water for about eight hundred people in Osukputu. That's an extraordinary amount of people for one source. And it offers a direct solution to this other image—that of a shaded, stagnant water source that's far away from the village and carries disease.
In all of these remote, impoverished areas it's predominantly women and children who are responsible for gathering water. If children are waking up early to carry water to the village, they're going to show up to school exhausted. If women are gathering water, then their ability to work other jobs, to progress economically, is also severely limited.
It's a vicious cycle.
Right. I met one woman in Ethiopia who was eight months pregnant, climbing down the side of a mountain with a water jug. She needed it to make beer for the future celebration of her child's birth. It was the most celebratory time in her life, and she had to risk the very life of the child whose birth she would be celebrating, just to get that water.
In January 2015, the World Economic Forum announced that the water crisis is the number one global risk—based on impact to society. What are some of the global risks related to water that you're going to examine next?
Climate change and rising sea levels, for which Dhaka in Bangladesh is ground zero. It's not only important to study that place because of the flooding and the economic devastation—it's the fact that this happens perpetually. I would also like to look at Western Australia and the tapering off of the mineral industry, combined with water scarcity. Perth might become a twenty-first century ghost town if they don't sort out their water issues.
What's the most important message you hope to pass on with this project?
I would say that the aim of my project is to show people that we are not inseparable from our environment, and highlight the things we do wrong on a perpetual basis. We also need to understand that the same problems affect all of us in the same way—they are not a problem for only certain parts of the world.
At the same time, the world is a beautiful place, so don't I want people to look at my work and only think about how screwed we are? I want people to be inspired by the beauty I photograph—to feel motivated to change their ways. Which shows that I believe the water problem can be solved.
Mustafah's first UK solo show, Water Stories, is showing at The Scoop in London until April 10, 2016.
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