Travel

On its Last Legs | Otherworldly Photos of a Dying Lake in Iran

Lake Urmia was once the largest salt lake in the Middle East, but now it is set to vanish altogether

by Ebrahim Noroozi; as told to Kieran Morris
Mar 13 2019, 11:39am

Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi

In this series, Ebrahim Noroozi: Snapshots of Iran , we’re publishing some of the acclaimed Iranian photographer’s most powerful images.


Iranian photographer Ebrahim Noroozi has made a career out of capturing the unseen in his homeland. The three-time World Press Awards winner is unafraid to focus on dark, heavy, troubling subjects, such as the spectacle of public execution, or the residual impact of extreme domestic violence. While these series have been focused on the immediate and visible, this week we’re looking at one of Noroozi’s most beautiful - but no less tragic - collections: The Lake on its Last Legs.

Formerly the largest salt lake in the Middle East, Lake Urmia has receded at an astonishing rate in the last two decades, shrinking to 10 percent of its 1995 capacity on account of rising global temperatures - one of the worst ecological disasters to date across the continent.

"I feel that it’s my duty to display the terrible things that happen at the hands of humans"

In Noroozi’s pictures, however, the tragedy is not emphasised: instead, the focus is turned towards joy, beauty, brightness, and the illimitable horizon that sets the receding Urmia in another world. The story of Lake Urmia’s recession is well-known and well-trodden - Leonardo DiCaprio has even made it an environmental cause célèbre - but Noroozi captures the human experience, and how in spite of forces we cannot control, we can cherish what is ours for as long as we still have it.

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His images show visitors savouring and playing in the Lake, even as it succumbs to the ravages of climate change - which only serves to emphasise the value of what is being lost. Here, Noroozi talks through how the series came about, the inspiration behind it and what he sought to achieve in documenting the lake’s demise.


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My sole objective with this series was to not show the beauty - but it came out anyway. The lake is very beautiful, that’s impossible to ignore, especially as the waters turn red in the warm seasons. This is a human story, about humans and humanity, and the damage that we, as humans, do to the natural world. The lake is changing, possibly for good, and is being destroyed in front of our eyes. It is a tragedy that I could not go without capturing.

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Lake Urmia used to be a destination for tourists and ships: now the entire lake is crossable by foot. Boats are dried-up on the lake bed. Salt islands are emerging and growing year-on-year. Not enough people are talking about the environmental disaster we’re facing in Iran, and so much of it is a disaster of our own making. We farmed excessively, we blocked the streams and the waters that used to sustain the lake, and we all played a part in changing the temperature that’s now drying out the lake. And yet, people don’t seem to care.

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Above all other things, humanity is always my subject, no matter what I’m shooting. Much like the lake, I believe that humanity itself is being damaged and destroyed by careless actions - that belief is the reason why I take photos, I feel that it’s my duty to display the terrible things that happen at the hands of humans. In this series, the people captured are not displaying callousness or suffering - instead, they’re trying to seize every moment from Lake Urmia, in an effort to keep memories of the lake that will survive its eventual demise. But they are, in part, responsible for that demise - as am I - and that shouldn’t ever be forgotten.

We’ll be publishing more of Ebrahim Noroozi’s photos in the coming weeks, as part of our Snapshots of Iran series. Keep up with Ebrahim on Instagram .