29 June 2023
The above image is for illustration and credit to Middle East Institute.
The Middle East and North Africa region is facing acute environmental degradation. A River Flows Downstream captures the lingering angst of ecological collapse through the lens of eight photographers from the region.

When the Middle East Institute, in partnership with Tribe Photo Magazine, invites eight photographers to collectively expose a brutalized nature in a new show in Washington DC, it’s hard not to succumb to eco-distress.

A River Flows Downstream curated by Roï Saade, centres ecological collapse – a reality hard-felt in the MENA region which is one of the most water-stressed areas in the world – and our gaze towards it.

“If the show’s title evokes the natural course of the water cycle – from cloud to river and sea – it also suggests a force that we can’t fight. In doing so, we fail to identify signs of hope and ways to apprehend an alternative to this accelerated decay”

We see the traces and evidence of this scarcity in Solmaz Daryani’s eerie series The eyes of the earth (2014-ongoing). In these photographs, the Iranian-born artist shows the changing, otherworldly landscape of a vanishing lake: Lake Urmia.

A highly saline body of water, the lake has rapidly shrunk from being one of the largest in the world to reaching an alarming status today, comprising of declining water levels, as well as red algae and bacteria proliferation.

Daryani, whose family used to own a hotel by Lake Urmia’s receding shore during the 1990s, has documented the strangeness of a place once so familiar and the many ways that people relate to this disappearance.

In Women swim in a shallow pond that is a remnant of Lake Urmia (2015), a woman bathes in the water. It could have been a holiday except that around her shallow water pool are salt and rocks, the remnants of former depths.

Her expression is one of bliss and stillness as if she’s experiencing something both sensual and spiritual. Despite this lyricism, the lake incarnates a sickly future and a radically altered local habitat.

Solmaz Daryani, From the series The Eyes Of Earth, “Women swim in a shallow pond that is a remnant of Lake Urmia” (2015)

Echoing with Daryani’s photograph of salt pillars (The stakes of a jetty covered in salt look like popsicles, 2014) is Reem Falaknaz’s The Tolerance of One Million Trees series (2016-2017) which captures isolated trees in an arid environment.

The trees are standing, against all odds, but their lifespan is uncertain. One imagines behind these singular shots a portrait of Emirati attempts made to combat desertification and sprawling urbanisation via afforestation. The trees are shaped by the wind and a cherished illusion that the desert can bloom.

While the region is commonly defined by such dry landscapes, sometimes warnings come from an excess of water, like a tap left open for too long. An unnatural abundance of water also threatens ecosystems that were once self-regulated.

For instance, the edification of dams has at times contributed to manipulating irrigation patterns while submerging villages and large swaths of cultural heritage.

Reem Falaknaz, The Tolerance of One Million Trees, Untitled (2016-2017)

It’s no exception in Türkiye, where photojournalist Emin Özmen directs his lens to the Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates river, part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project which includes dozens of other dams and hydroelectric power stations.

The impact of these mega-projects on people’s traditional livelihoods is immediately felt in The flock crosses Gerzan River, Turkey, Batman (2019).

There, sheep must swim to follow ancestral routes that were previously dry. The self-explanatory work The water level is rising in the reservoir lake of the Ilisu dam, near the mythical thousand-year-old caves of Hasankeyf, now totally submerged.

Hasankeyf (2020) bears witness to this physical and intangible destruction which transfixes our gaze like a form of sacrilege.

Emin Özmen, Farewell, Huseyin (8) stands in a part of the cave where he lives with his family and their herd. Batman (2021)

Zied Ben Romdhane’s Phosphate series (2014-2015) highlights the impact of the mining industry on southern Tunisian lives and its environment through the gripping, monochromatic lens of haunted vistas.

Phosphate contributes to 4% of Tunisia’s national wealth and it accounts for 15% of its exports. Yet Ben Romdhane’s landscapes are those of desolation. Concrete structures and corrugated material suggest an unfinished construction, an unsettling reality.

Zied Ben Romdhane, Phosphate 3, “Two farmers”, Mitlaoui, Tunisia, (2015)

The show, which also includes works from Hoda Afshar, who captures the rituals and chromatic intensity of islands off the Strait of Hormuz, Paul Gorra’s unbearably obscene transformation of Beirut river into open-air sewage as yet another sign of neglect, as well as Roï Saade and Tamara Abdul Hadi’s visual travelogue in the dusty, drought-affected Iraqi lands that the Euphrates nourishes less and less, crucially leaves us to wonder: how can we reasonably adapt to all this?

The desaturated photographs suggest that we don’t; we fade, like expired film. While the artists individually underscore the man-made violence perpetuated against nature in their respective countries, together they sketch an irresistible march unfolding across an entire region – beyond site-specific concerns.

This is also what the poetic title of the exhibition suggests. For Zied Ben Romdhane, A River Flows Downstream resonates with the philosophy of flux proposed by ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, in which nothing is said to ever stay the same. “The world is in constant motion, unlike photography which captures a specific moment in time,” he told The New Arab, hoping for the show to trigger conversations.

Reflecting on his “Phosphate” series on display, Ben Romdhane also notes that in a decade, “nothing has changed except for a decrease in production and the daily shut down of the mines” in the Tunisian regions of Gabes and Gafsa.

Phosphate production in Tunisia halved between 2010 and 2019, which directly impacts families whose income relies on the industry. Meanwhile, chemical pollution from the phosphate industry contaminates the air, water tables, and the sea.

If the show’s title evokes the natural course of the water cycle – from cloud to river and sea – it also suggests a force that we can’t fight. In doing so, we fail to identify signs of hope and ways to apprehend an alternative to this accelerated decay.

This lack of proposition embodies a parochial hopelessness, a further dispossession of our agency.

Saade sees the visual journey he presents as a “constellation of stories” that recalls “that water binds us together and that it’s key to our survival,” he told The New Arab. In some ways then, water is both a past and a future. Amongst so much strife and numbness, maybe it is our shared fate that ultimately unites people, we want to believe. But through this constellation, we collect more testimonies of fragmentation and despair.

Saade’s selection of long-term projects reinforces the value of deeply-researched, locally-rooted observations of these changing phenomena. Apart from Gorra’s Beirut photographs, other series date to several years ago. They signal ruminations and an obsession to probe, document, and bear witness.

These omens – often ignored until impossible to do so – haunt us in creating a new aesthetics, a metamorphosing, silent language for our collective resignation.

“A River Flows Downstream” is on show at the Middle East Institution in Washington DC through 13 October.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis

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