Climate | Photography

“Water is like a mirror”

Droughts, forest fires, floods: humanity is quietly heading for a climate crisis. With his photo series on water, Mustafah Abdulaziz holds a mirror up to what’s happening. A conversation

Three people standing on a sheet of water.

People standing on the so-called Pillars on the beach at Mount Martha, Australia. For an indepth fotographic research on the subject of water, photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz visited places where our careless relationship with this vital resource becomes apparent. 

A round fire about two meters wide is burning, and a man is standing next to it. In the background you can see the Ganges and a bridge that spans it.

Funeral pyre of Ram Bhagat. Allahabad, India, 2013

What initially inspired you to photograph water as the topic for your series?
I began with the purpose of using water as the mirror to reflect the conditions, woes and, hypocrisies of the human interaction with nature in the twenty-first century. My connection to the water is simple: I possess the motivation and the desire to see something I believe is important entered into the common awareness of culture. Not just for this time we live in, but for the time to come, when we look back upon this era and wonder how we ever were so foolish to think we didn’t see this coming, that we were oblivious that it would go so wrong.

Humanity is spiraling through the Anthropocene, obsessed with itself and its machinations, while increasingly revealing its sickness of thought through a collective inability to address environmental and social concerns.

A black man kneels with closed eyes, water is poured over his head as a sign of baptism. In the background are men with white turbans.

Sunday service, St. John Apostolic Church of the Whole World. Cape Town, South Africa, 2018

How many countries have you travelled to in the course of photographing this series? Where do you want to go to next?
The list of countries is enough for me to pass on enumerating them. Enough to fit into a decade and more, and the list is on-going. They are they places you, the reader, have seen suffering droughts and wildfires that are harbingers of other oncoming climate crisis.

They are the countries where inequality is created when women and children must sacrifice their well-being and social mobility to gather water hours upon hours away from home. It is the places, both in the Global North and South that somehow view the problem as elsewhere, elusive and beyond their scope. Water is a mirror, a reflector of our behavior because it is resource that is undeniably vital, crucial and necessary for life on this planet, and not just for mankind, but for all.

“We mustn’t be afraid to look at ourselves in its reflection”

Right now you are in the Arctic to photograph water and ice – what inspired that journey? Have you taken photos there already – what do you aim to shoot? Is it technically difficult to work in that environment?
It is extremely difficult to work in the Arctic, the least of which is expense, but also time and emotional well-being. Human beings have, for most of their history, travelled to great lengths to exploit and take from land and people all manner of objects and power.

The Arctic is no different. It is simply more beautiful and remote. The people here, the companies and the industries that participate in what is categorically an irrational and insane interaction, have convinced themselves of their own righteousness. They are simply exploiters with a smile. Exploiters that may hide behind a company logo or a catchy slogan.

A wet sandy beach at the transition to the sea, a ship lies on its side and is reflected by the smooth surface. On the deck someone has painted a Christmas tree and written Happy Holidays.

Hurricane Michael aftermath, Christmas Day. Panama City, Florida, USA, 2018

It doesn’t change that they use the place just the same as we have used other places of great beauty and resource. Just because there’s pretty ice and snow doesn’t make it any less obvious to any critically thinking individual. What I’m doing here isn’t to mark everyone into one category, however. It is not to pass judgment, per se.

What I am photographing here is simply a perspective of one person who has experienced and exposed himself to the topic across a wide-range of places and circumstances and seeks to create from that idea a commentary on the frontier of human existence in the Arctic by using photography to compare, contrast and illuminate the absurdity of our behavior. As I said, water is the mirror. If we can casually pollute our planet, swipe endlessly on pictures of our own faces, drive around in cars and planes like these resources have no impact, then we deserve to have a mirror held up to us. We mustn’t be afraid to look at ourselves in its reflection.

Water is a leitmotiv in all art forms but I imagine it is hard to capture its atmosphere on photo?
I find it very apt, that the photographic practice freezes observations, that it’s method and outcome are linked to crystalizing time and perspective. In this way, it is a very fitting tool to do what you can never do in real life when you step into a river: pause something and look at it again and again, from all angles and degrees.

What was your most memorable or difficult shoot?
What I remember the most from each journey are not the moments that make me happy or content, or even the ones that make me feel upset or sad. What comes to my mind in the deepest parts of my heart when I am in the Arctic alone, is the understanding that because I see, I am compelled to do something about it. I’ve been incredibly lucky to do this work, it is not done for my own sake, for my own ego and profit, but to use with purpose for the betterment of my fellow man. This is what is memorable to me when I am alone and no one is looking. Always.

The Interview was conducted by Cécile Calla and Jess Smee