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‘Water Stories’ from the Yangtze – with photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz


    Leonardo Da Vinci once said ‘water is the driving force of all nature’. But as our world becomes more populous and industrialised water quality is declining, threatening human health and species –since 1970, there has been a 76% decline in populations of freshwater species around the world.

    Mustafah Abdulaziz is an American documentary photographer based in Berlin. His on-going project “Water” has received support from the United Nations, WaterAid and VSCO. He’s the winner of the Syngenta photography award 2015. In 2012, he was named one of PDN’s 30 Emerging Photographers to Watch.

    Mustafah is working with WWF, WaterAid and Earthwatch to document images and stories highlighting the global water crisis. These powerful images form the Water Stories photographic exhibition, which is supported by the HSBC Water Programme.

    Mustafah and I travelled to China together earlier this year to capture our work in the Yangtze. Here, he shares his thoughts on China and creating a photographic project on our most precious and threatened natural resource.

    As a photographer, what drew you towards water as a subject?

    Water is one of the great challenges of our time. Across the planet we are seeing our fundamental relationship with water called into question. The aim of this project is to use photography as a pathway to understanding. Photographs have the capacity to bring into focus our place in the world.

    Tell us more about ‘Water Stories’?

    Over the course of two years I have been capturing the effects of urbanization, poor sanitation and pollution in India; water scarcity and contamination in Pakistan, and expanding industry and population in China for a public photographic exhibition. The pictures convey the effects of these issues on people and the environment, and how better management and protection of water sources can strengthen communities, and underpin development.

    What is the aim of the Water Stories exhibition?

    It is my hope that this exhibition may remind us that we must address this challenge as one and work towards coexistence with our environment, as much for individual benefit as our collective gain. Our future depends on our understanding; and water hangs in the balance.

    What stands out to you about the people you have photographed for this project and how they interact with water?

    Wherever I’ve worked I’ve come across interactions with water that are profoundly disturbing and others subtle and unexpected. When I travelled the Yangtze, I met a man who had once hunted animals at Hong Lake, was imprisoned and returned to protect the same place he once called his hunting grounds. This was a story of redemption, of someone making the conscious choice to work alongside their environment rather than against it. It might not seem like a story of one man matters against the massive scale of sand dredge boats clogging the waterways, damaging their ecosystem and the animals in it, but I try to always remember that the story of water and of our civilization are one. They are intrinsically linked.

    What interested you about China in terms of this project?

    In a project looking at water globally, it’s impossible to talk about this topic without looking at a country like China, where rapid growth is facilitated by an intense use of their environment and people. They are dependent on the Yangtze River for commerce, food, drinking water, transport and recreation, yet they are largely unaware of the damage human activity causing it.

    What was the biggest challenge in China photographically?

    There are always challenges in making any photography: from time, to logistics, to whether the concepts being addressed or stories being told come across in the right way. Or, whether in the end you’ll have a piece that works together. The way I see handling these things isn’t to predict, but to be adaptable. The photographs I make on water revolve around the topic but aren’t about water entirely, in that I’m trying to document a space of interaction between us and the resource. It’s this interaction that fascinates me. In China, I’m coming across a highly populated environment that’s dealing with water in dozens of ways and so I focused on reducing the visual chaos into something quiet and calm, by not showing too much information in the moments I chose. I isolated ideas and made the aesthetic not about how intense China is, but how these individual moments were commenting on something complex in a direct and quiet way. In this way, China offered many, many opportunities for adaptation.

    What excites you most about bringing these images to the general public?

    Connectivity. The first Water Stories exhibition is on a pier in a central area of Stockholm. This public space brings the photographs to people who might not view water as an important, or critical issue, or even see themselves as part of it.
    For me this is the way to make people feel connected with their world, by creating a space in the work itself and in the manner in which it’s displayed, where these places and ideas are questions rather than answers. I am not a photojournalist. My job is not educational. I’m creating a perspective on water, one that focuses on the interaction between water and us. Connectivity, from one set of eyes on a pier to photographs that speak of our shared place in the world.

    What’s next?

    We hope to share these stories with more people and spread the message as widely as possible. I’ll be travelling to the Pantanal, Brazil and Mara, Kenya with WWF and Ghana with WaterAid to continue my work on water and exhibit in Water Stories in London in Spring 2016.

    Keep an eye out on my blog for more on Mustafah and the field trips to photograph our work. Check out The WaterHub to view more on the Stockholm exhibition, which coincides with World Water Week in Stockholm, from 23 – 28 August.

    Wang Guicai, fisherman, Lake Hong, Hubei Province, China, 2015 ©Mustafah Abdulaziz/WWF-UK Wang Guicai, fisherman, Lake Hong, Hubei Province, China, 2015 ©Mustafah Abdulaziz/WWF-UK   An image of Shanghai, China, from the Water Stories exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz, Strandvägen, Stockholm, 2015. © Felix SwenssonAn image of Shanghai, China, from the Water Stories exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz, Strandvägen, Stockholm, 2015. © Felix Swensson Three Gorges Dam, Yichang, Hubei Province, China, 2015. ©Mustafah Abdulaziz/WWF-UK Three Gorges Dam, Yichang, Hubei Province, China, 2015. ©Mustafah Abdulaziz/WWF-UK Water Stories exhibition,  from 11-30 August 2015 on Strandvägen, Stockholm. © Felix SwenssonWater Stories exhibition, from 11-30 August 2015 on Strandvägen, Stockholm. © Felix Swensson

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