An old man is sitting solemnly on the edge of a swan-boat. He is looking down in despair. He has both his hands placed on his lap, as if to support the burden which weighs him down. This old man is the Iranian photographer, Solmaz Daryani's (@solmazdaryani) grandfather. He used to run a lakefront motel in the city of Sharafkhaneh, on the port of Lake Urmia, once the largest lake in the Middle East and the second largest salt lake on the planet. This lake used to be a thriving tourist destination, providing a livelihood to nearly six million people who live in the Urmia basin. Since 1972, however, it has lost 88% of its area and 80% of its volume due to increasing temperatures, excessive dam constructions, water mismanagement, population growth, and expansion of the agricultural sector to ensure national food security after eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. As the Lake dried up, local tourism and agriculture suffered. Winds, whipping across the Lake, blew salt dust to the farm fields, slowly rendering the soil infertile and causing both land and architecture to collapse.
Like the livelihood of many other people based around the Lake, Daryani's grandfather's motel and gardens fell into ruin. With the decline of tourism, Sharafkhaneh lost its charm. Its younger population fled to nearby cities for better work opportunities, leaving the elderly behind. It is now a sparsely populated village.
Daryani spent all her childhood summers in this now sparsely populated village. Recollecting this, she said, 'I cherish those memories and still remember the sound of the waves, the chatter of beachside vacationers, the sulphur smell of the dark mud, and the salty breeze in the mid-afternoon heat.' In despair, however, she also said that neither the Lake nor the port town resemble the place of her childhood memories. Aiming to express the magnitude of this change, she began a long-term photographic project, the Eyes of the Earth, in 2014. Through this project, she seeks to demonstrate the extent to which the drying of the Lake impacted her own family, the ecosystem, and the people living around it.
She interacts with two main themes in the project: climate change and the interconnectedness of humans and their environment. In order to bring out these themes, Daryani uses juxtaposition as a visual technique. She often juxtaposes photographs from her personal archive of family members in specific spots on the Lake, with photographs of the same spots that she took much later. For instance, in the image below, the photograph on the right depicts two local people sitting on the edge of a boat, on the coast of Sharafkhaneh, in 1993. And the photograph on the left depicts children playing on a boat on the same coast in 2015. Juxtaposition allows Daryani to make visible the pace at which the shoreline of the Lake has been receding. In 1993, it appears that children were able to walk along the shore, but in 2015, with no shore in sight for miles, they play with what has been left behind.
In addition to images from her personal archive, Daryani juxtaposes photographs that she took during the earlier years of the project with more recent ones. For instance, the image below depicts a water pump used to move water from deeper places to the beachside to allow people to swim. The photograph on the right was taken in 2017 and the one on the left in 2015.
Juxtaposition in this sense, too, allows Daryani to express the magnitude and the pact at which the Lake's surrounding landscape is changing. It also allows her to establish a sense of urgency - to demand that action needs to be taken and as soon as possible, as the Lake, its ecosystem, and the communities which it supports are being affected on an annual basis.
Another potent theme in Daryani's images is time. In some of her images, time as experienced by the people represented, seems to pass very slowly. Her portfolio for this project is not lacking in images of people sitting and waiting by themselves, in what is left of the Lake, in a teahouse that went out of business, or in the remains of a guesthouse. With eyes shut or looking down, these people seem to be waiting, for better days perhaps, or in reminiscence of them.
If in the portraits of people time seems to pass slowly, then in the portraits of the landscape itself time seems to be speeding. Each set of juxtaposed photographs conveys the pace of change and loss experienced by the Lake, its surrounding landscape, and the communities which inhabit it. In its this thematic aspect, Daryani's work functions as a call to action, urging the global community to act before the loss experienced becomes irreparable and its magnitude even greater.
Solmaz Daryani is an Iranian documentary photographer loosely based between Iran and the UK. She is a grantee of the Magnum Foundation and the National Geographic Society. Her work explores themes of climate change and water crisis, focussing on humans and their relationships with the environment, communities, and cultures. She has created several works over extended periods to understand human behaviour and ideas in their social, cultural, religious, and political contexts. The subjects with which she has worked overlap with sociology and human geography. Her long-term and ongoing project, The Eyes of the Earth, won the 2015 London Magnum Photos Grant, the 2018 PhotogrVphy Grant, the 2020 Alexandra Boulat scholarship, and the 2021 FotoEvidence Book Award.