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Two Rivers: A Photographic Voyage Through Central Asia

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Asia Life

Two Rivers: A Photographic Voyage Through Central Asia

Carolyn Drake spoke with The Diplomat about her travels in Central Asia and her new book, Two Rivers .

A preserved sea bream is half-submerged in a case that sits on a blue stand at a museum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, reminding us that the Aral Sea from which it came once teemed with life. Pilgrims are seen taking a dip in between visiting Sufi sights in southern Kazakhstan. A female shaman in Tajikistan conducts a ritual to cure a young woman of fatigue by holding a dagger over her shoulder – a spread of fruits, nuts and bread is set out before them.

These images, each gripping and telling a vastly different story come from Two Rivers, the new photographic meditation by award-winning photographer Carolyn Drake. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright award and a number of international photography awards, Drake’s work has illuminated the pages of National Geographic, The New Yorker, and TIME Magazine.

In Two Rivers, self-published with support from a Kickstarter campaign and accompanied by an essay penned by The New Yorker’s Elif Batuman, Drake has taken as her latest subject the remote expanse of the ‘Stans – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

For most of us, this region is little more than an unfathomable blank space that stands between the Middle East and China, bordered by Russia to the north with Iran and Afghanistan to the south. Within the dramatic terrain of this epic landmass lie two rivers as old as the region itself: the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, from which the book’s name is derived.

The ancient Greeks knew the rivers as the Oxus and Jaxartes, while an Islam hadith holds that they are two of four rivers that lead directly into Paradise. Unfortunately, it is lucky if they flow at all now.

Originating in the mountains near China’s western edge, these once mighty waterways ran to the bountiful Aral Sea – that is, before the region was incorporated into the Soviet Union. The rivers’ flow was then redirected for agriculture and development, which coupled with global warming to all but dry up what remains. Compared with their neighbors, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have managed to escape relatively unscathed, thanks to their vast reserves of oil and natural gas. But others within the region have not been so lucky.

This unevenness of historical and geographic fate serves as the springboard for Drake’s exploration, undertaken through numerous journeys over the course of five years. Drake once wrote: “As these rivers have splintered on natural and unnatural paths, so have empires and cultures…Here the cracks of history exist together with the present, and the present carries no more weight than the past.”

In Two Rivers, Drake explores the complex realities in an unconventional style “that eschews traditional documentary for an altogether more impressionistic point of view in which mystery and suggestion are as important in evoking a sense of place as straightforward landscapes or portraits,” writes The Guardian, adding a healthy dose of praise for her “rich” and “atmospheric” use of color in the photos. This deft manipulation of color is seen in turquoise doorframes, a freshly killed duck’s plumage, and garish packages used for smuggling heroin; juxtaposed with images of monuments built by megalomaniacal post-Soviet dictators.

Drake recently spoke with The Diplomat about the book, her travels in this enigmatic region and the illusory nature of geographical divisions.

071408tajikistan1119Elif Batuman of The New Yorker, who penned the text for Two Rivers, wrote: “Drake’s Central Asia is a place where political allegiances, ethnic bonds, national borders, and even physical geography are in such flux as to seem, at times, like fictions.” What are some of the most dramatic examples of these shifting boundaries and ties from your perspective? 

Central Asia reminds me of, or emphasizes, the idea that reality is hard to pin down – life, and the meanings we impose on it, are always moving and shifting. Look at the political boundaries of the region. The current borders were established after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. All of a sudden, a person who was used to walking across the street to a relative’s house for a meal had to cross an international border to get there.

There are little village-sized pieces of one country contained in others. If you look further back, you see that these borders, which were used to establish control of the region during Soviet times, shifted as the Russian Empire extended into the region, and as many others, from many different directions, did before that.

If you looked on Google maps a year ago, you would have seen a big mark indicating the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. It was nice and round and blue. They hadn’t updated their map in a while. A personal visit yields a desert and layers of salt and shells and shrubs, only a sliver of sea.

The definition of “Muslim” is hard to pin down too. Can you call yourself one if you never visit a mosque? Is it a shaman who asks Allah to call the spirits? Or a man who tells his wife to cover her face? Who decides what the answer is?

When I was growing up, from the western political perspective, Central Asia was Soviet Union. A political enemy, atheist, communist. Today, it is the edge of Islam, the Chinese frontier. But has it changed that much?

062608fortune_dam0426 as Smart Object-1As a photographer, how do you approach a region that is so in flux? Do you have certain techniques or practices that allow you to portray the almost “fictional” character – or at least the dramatically changing nature – of the subject matter in this book?

I’m not actually trying to portray a fiction. I’m just allowing impulses and feelings (plus a lot of research) to guide the work instead of having a factual story that I want to illustrate. Sometimes, hopefully, the pictures suggest something tangent to or beyond or outside of the literal objects and surfaces that you see in them.

I think when Elif talks about the images being fictions, in a way she is saying they are real. We live in a world of fictions.

You successfully self-published this book through a Kickstarter campaign. What was that process like?

The Kickstarter guidelines say most people spend two weeks preparing a project page. I spent twice that. But I thought the process of putting together the presentation and video was a worthwhile exercise. It forced me to articulate my motivations and the ideas behind the project.

I struggled with some technical hurdles but figured them out with the help of friends who have more video editing experience than me, and I’ve enjoyed having a direct dialogue with backers about the work.

032709turkmen0147During the time you were visiting, what were some of the biggest events shaping the region? Did you have a chance to get close to any of them in particular?

I arrived for the first time right after the infamous Turkmenbashi passed away, and I finished shooting the year Kyrgyz President Bakiyev was ousted. During that time there was growing tension between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over Rogun, the future world’s tallest dam, which the Tajik president wanted to build and the Uzbek President opposed. The ecological problems at the dried Aral Sea in Uzbekistan were being blamed on Tajikistan. Border crossings were closed and opened and closed again.

European magazines were publishing stories about the revival of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. International organizations were concerned that fundamentalist sects of Islam would spread across the Afghan border if the U.S. left Afghanistan. Stories about Uzbek dissidents being imprisoned and boiled were posted on obscure places on the internet from time to time, and there were reports that the CIA was sending people to be tortured there.

But I was more interested in small and fleeting interactions on the fringes than in big, unknowable events. I tried to embrace movement, looking for connections between places rather than honing in on one particular person or place or group. Water, the environment, and the infinite range of stories that relate to and extend from them are the unifying motif.

Are the images in Two Rivers more weighted towards people, places/landscapes, or a good mixture of both?

A mixture of both, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes neither. There are also portrait-like pictures of inanimate objects in the mix.

What do you feel are some of the most dramatic images you captured for Two Rivers?

I think that should be left to viewers to decide. There are 138 photos in the book. Some are printed bigger than others, but the book is not designed to emphasize one image, or one place, or one person, over any other. It is constantly moving, one image or spread leading to the next and the next.

I think different viewers will respond to different images. There are some photo books in which you notice new or different details or connections each time you look through them, books that seem to change, or be a little different, each time you open them. It would be great if this book was one of them.

Scenes around TurkestanWhat other regions of the world/subject matter have you photographed in the past? Which ones made the most impact on you?

I’ve also spent a lot of time on the Chinese side of Central Asia, working on a project about Uighurs. It’s something I photographed in parallel to Two Rivers, and with equal interest. The Chinese/Soviet border (which also fluctuated over time) has had tremendous impact on the development of the two sides of Central Asia.

You learn a lot about the power of empires and big government when you cross back and forth across this border and observe how similar cultures and faiths and languages, when placed on one side or the other, persist or morph or disappear.

Do you have some other “dream” projects you have yet to undertake as a photographer? Where/what would they involve?

Most projects I do are a struggle, so it’s hard to call any of them “dream” projects. And I’ve gotten used to taking risks, so if I want to do something I just do it rather than dreaming about it. But usually, it doesn’t become an actual project until I’ve been working on it for quite a while. It starts with a theme that I want to push myself to consider more deeply, and I start reading and thinking and shooting and see where it leads. I’m working now on wrapping up this project about Uighurs in Xinjiang, and am forming ideas for something new in the U.S., in Mississippi, where I’m living now.