American photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz has been documenting the world’s water crisis for the last six years. The result of that work can now be seen in an exhibition, Water Stories, arriving in Sydney for the first time.
In 2011, the New York-born, Berlin-based creative started research on how various cultures perceive water, as well as how it’s being exploited and taken for granted. This eventually led him to travel to different parts of the globe, capturing thought-provoking images of people and their relationship with the precious resource.
The incredible project will run for 15 years. The hope here is that we get to see how water scarcity affects different people, and start a dialogue on solving it.
Water Stories is now on display at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney Waterfront from 15 August to 5 September from 7am to 8pm. It will feature 70 large-scale images and will be illuminated for night viewing.
The unique outdoor exhibition is supported by the HSBC Water Programme, in partnership with WWF, Earthwatch, and WaterAid.
We talked to Abdulaziz to know more about the series and the ongoing exhibit.
You’ve toured through London, Hong Kong, Stockholm, New York, and Vancouver, and yet this is the first time you’ll be going to Sydney. How excited are you to be here?
“It’s very exciting to be here. The exhibition has travelled to some very diverse locales, including some of the larger English-speaking countries and their large cities. Having this outreach element of the project be available, for free and to the public is a critical mission to me personally, as it brings intimacy into public space and this content to a wider viewership.”
Please tell us more about your photography. What’s it like travelling the world and documenting the worsening global water crisis?
“The project Water is the overarching fifteen-year work on water and this exhibition Water Stories represents a partnership that’s focused on some very immediate and visceral aspects of human beings and their relationship with water.
“To conceive, plan and bring together partners to make each trip a reality is in itself a challenge. I say this to make viewers understand that these things are not simple to do, that there really isn’t a structure or reliable system to make something like a photographic work on water, a common resource. So what they are seeing is an aspect of a greater whole, a difficult project that’s required continual adaptation not unlike the subject matter itself.
“The reason why I think this is important to appreciate it is that this is a human issue and a humanistic documentation of something that moves beyond our borders and constructs of our societies. It’s human from the planning phase, in the ethics and the approaches I choose, to the people I associate with, to the subjects and their stories and lives.
“The next aspect of the work is the actual experiences of preparing for the work, the things you witness in the course of making documentary photography and lastly, the outcome and trying to parse through your own creative process to reach better levels of communicating and reflecting on the world. It looks simple but it is anything but.
“In terms of seeing the challenges facing people with water, I can say that it’s multifaceted. Sometimes it’s disheartening to see human behavior neglect things that are critical to our existence. Other times it’s hard to reconcile the severe contrasts between irrational behavior, self-destruction and willing ignorance.
“The physical danger or challenges are the least of my worries. It’s the ideas that populate across our planet that place people on a pedestal where they live inconsistently with the natural world and it’s this aspect I find hard to reconcile.”
What should visitors expect from your outdoor display? Are there any new works that particularly pertain to how the water crisis affects Australians?
“Viewers can expect to feel a level of intimacy and reflection in a beautiful environment that brings their world closer to them. This is, at the core, the goal of the installation for me: to make that which is abstract and disparate into a quiet, lyrical reflector for the viewer to move through and gaze upon.
“I would’ve loved to make new work for the exhibition on the water issues in Australia but in all honesty, this would, in my mind, require considerable time to explore and nuance to document. This will be something I’ll look into in the future.”
You’ve been working on the project since 2011. What has changed since then?
“The project was always intended to grow, contract and shift according to the needs of the work and the direction I felt it needed to move in. There wasn’t any other way I could conceive of a proper photographic work on water to be.
“So, to answer your question, the work is epitomized by its flexibility and constant reimagining. This keeps the work fresh, the ideas percolating and my own intentions in a place where I can understand them.
The project is also expected to run for 15 years. What do you hope to accomplish by the time it ends?
“The ultimate goal of the work isn’t limited to one method of output. Right now the work is one-third complete, so there’s much to still do. The long timeline is necessary for the scale and the completion of the work. I can describe to you what I intend for it to feel like, rather than give away the idea before it’s finished.
“I remember, as a young boy, walking through the Museum of Natural History in New York. My mother used to take me there, and there’s something really personal about that environment to me: it signified the best of human minds, despite the flaws of human behavior, to be curious about the world, to make it real for anyone who walked through it.
“Anyway, it was during one of these afternoon visits with my mother that I saw the fiberglass exhibit of the blue whale, the largest animal alive on the planet. I remember laying in the darkened room, surrounded by other kids and staring up at the contours of the whale, imagining what it would feel like to be next to it, to touch it and feel its power through the reverberations of the water. What did it feel when it saw me? What did it mean for me to exist with it? My mind was full of wonder and questions my mother patiently answered.
“I had that experience over twenty years ago. When I think of the impact I want to leave on viewers, children and adults, I remember how the wonders of nature made me feel, not what facts it taught me. This why I focus so much on the power of photography to emote and evoke feeling and critical thought. It is because of these qualities that photography allows transcendence for a viewer in a way I feel is most appropriate for an ambitious, overarching photographic work on water in the 21st century.
“I want viewers to see the final piece and feel their worries and problems fall away and for a moment, feel the axis of their existence on the planet connect to something larger than themselves. Who knows? Perhaps there will be a kid in 2030 who sees the final work and dreams of doing something I could never do. If that happens, then I’d have contributed something worthwhile to this planet with my modest time on it.”
To see more of Abdulaziz’s work, head on over to his website.
Image credit: Mustafah Abdulaziz/WWF-UK. Water Stories has been brought to Australia for the first time by HSBC Water Programme, in partnership with WWF, Earthwatch and WaterAid.