Photographer giving rivers a modern twist
The Amu and Syr Darya are mentioned in early Islamic writings as two of the four Rivers of Paradise.
The flow of their waters has sustained human life for 40,000 years, providing pastures for herders, irrigation for farmers, and enabling the development of culture, trade, language and literature.
Now American photographer Carolyn Drake is exploring the rivers in her latest exhibition, which opens in Cardiff today.
During the 20th century, the Soviet Government transformed the Amu and the Syr Darya into a web of irrigation canals that brought large scale cotton production to the region.
Such large quantities of water were diverted that the Aral Sea – once the world’s fourth largest inland sea – began to disappear.
When Moscow’s rule ended in 1991, five new Central Asian nations appeared, burdened with plunging economies, artificial borders, and a growing ecological crisis.
Drake’s exhibition, Paradise Rivers, follows the rivers from their source in the valleys of the Pamir and Tien Shen mountains, downstream across Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan to their dwindling ends, crossing into the lives of people and layers of history that they intersect along the way.
This is a place where the connection between the earth and human life, and between the past and the present, is at once plainly visible and complex.
Salty sea has become toxic desert, desert is farmland, and people are left to subsist between the cracks of history.
Drake is an American documentary photographer based in Turkey.
Her work is regularly published in international magazines such as National Geographic and Time, and her accolades include a World Press Photo Award and five Picture of the Year International Awards.
In 2008 she was awarded a Lange Taylor Prize, and currently she is continuing her work in Central Asia on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Joni Karanka, co-director of Cardiff Bay’s Third Floor Gallery where Drake is showing her work, has been following her career for many years.
He says: “She’s a complete photographer. She takes a classic photo-journalistic approach, but gives her work a modern twist.
“Her work is rather beautiful and complex. She produces work which is poetical – she mixes the real with the lyrical. Many of her images give the viewer an emotional reaction.”
Karanka and fellow photographer Maciej Dakowicz opened the Third Floor Gallery just five months ago, but they have already staged five exhibitions.
Karanka, who was born in Finland but grew up in Spain, became interested in taking photos as a young boy and while growing up he would sell his images to newspapers and magazines.
But he gave up on photography for a while and it was only after moving to Wales six years ago, where he studied for a Phd at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, that he picked up his camera once more.
“Wales is the kind of place where you want to take photos,” he says. “I was also travelling around a bit more then.”
He initially wanted to set up a social club for photographers, but after meeting Dakowicz they decided to open a gallery.
The gallery is self-financed and relies on donations as well as a team of volunteers, including students.
“In general, the gallery is very much oriented towards documentary photography, but we don’t only focus on that,” he says.
Once Drake’s show comes to an end, the gallery will be displaying a show by a photography collective whose members met online.
Carolyn Drake: Paradise Rivers is at Third Floor Gallery, Cardiff Bay until August 22