Even if you do not know Mustafah Abdulaziz or his photographs, you already possess a necessarily intimate relationship with the subject of his monumental photo project, simply named Water.
The photographic project presents images and stories of our global water crisis across regions as diverse as Sierra Leone, the Yangtze River, and the brushlands of California. Though sometimes troubling or even demoralizing, the imagery is always breathtaking. It is a startling juxtaposition Mustafah embraces as a mechanism to help understand how we use and misuse our most vital resource.
We caught up with the award-winning photographer in his Kreuzberg studio, where we spent the afternoon discussing the project he’s called his “life’s work”: its challenges, its rewards, and its implications.
Mustafah is currently three years into what he predicts will be a ten-year endeavor, which even he acknowledges may not be enough time to capture a subject whose complexity lies in its being both vast and nuanced.
You’re from New York City. What was it like growing up in such a dynamic city, renowned for its capacity to mint creative individuals?
My mother was studying to be a psychologist when I was growing up and was super supportive. She understood my need from a young age to go out on my own—I come from a big family, there are six of us—and explore the world through solitary experience. She would encourage all my random interests and flights of fancy. I remember the moment I discovered photography. I was in a bookstore and picked up Richard Avedon’s In the American West and I had this astounding feeling, this compulsion to understand it. I wanted to know how it was made; I wanted to know about the space between the photographer and the subject. Is this a job? Does somebody pay you? I didn’t know anyone I could ask, there were no photographers in our family, so my mom encouraged me to get out into the world and ask some questions…
…and where did you go to get some answers?
I went about it like an investigative journalist. I visited bookstore after bookstore, eventually left home at 17, drove south to Florida and west to California and I started taking crappy pictures.
I learned so much on that first trip. I learned about the technical parts of course, simple things like how to use a camera and all of its functions properly, but I also realized a large part of taking photos is the response. How people respond to you, as the photographer, when you want to take their picture. It was like learning to speak a new language. So much of my early education was trial and error. If I wanted to do landscape photography, I would read every book I could find on the subject. I found out which museums were collecting it, which curators and galleries were exhibiting it. It was definitely slow-going and I was kind of hacking away in the dark. That was, is now, and will probably always be my method. The method is the madness.
When you returned to NYC, what were you shooting?
I came back to NYC and I started applying for internships and no one knew who the hell I was! (laughs) So a lot of doors were slammed in my face and a lot of them just never opened.
My buddy Matt Craig at the Wall Street Journal gave me my first real assignment. It was the kind of assignment that meant other people might take a chance on me. I shot Barack Obama’s inauguration. I was supposed to capture people in the crowd, to capture how they were feeling. I remember being in the WSJ office in DC, sleeping on the floor, and thinking, “I’m hooked.”
I was and still am so proud to have been a part of such a momentous occasion. The sacrifice was some numb fingers: it was freezing sleeping on an office floor and drinking tons of bad coffee, but my name will forever live in the national archives along with the WSJ and that moment in history.
In 2011 you started working exclusively on your own projects. What catalyzed that shift?
To be honest, I became disillusioned with working in NYC. I realized I was in this constant battle over the way my work was presented. You know, your name is attached to the work, and you have very little agency for input in the way the world sees it. I think there are two parts of being a photographer. There is the part that is experiencing the moment and capturing it and there is the part that is human and wants to be a part of the conversation. That was where I was finding myself left out…
“In order to make someone else feel something, I have to feel it first. I have to have something to say.”
Is that what prompted you to start work on “Water”?
Yeah, it really just crystallized for me at that time. I asked myself, what am I willing to sacrifice to make my own work my own way? Turned out the sacrifice was financial security. (laughs)
That feeling of knowing there is a check in the mail was gone. I removed the temptation to do work that paid well but didn’t make me feel well. At the risk of sounding cliché, I wanted to go back to that moment in the bookstore, when I first discovered that photo book. I had so many questions, and was so naive, that I was sure I could find all the answers…and now, I am presenting my best work in the best way I know how. It’s work that focuses on the subjects I’m most passionate about.
I know now that in order to make someone else feel something, I have to feel it first. I have to have something to say. I’m not aiming for greatness for greatness’ sake, but I made a commitment to myself to do work at this level and make a clean break from client work.
I sacrificed a lot of common comforts, rent being one of them, and stopped letting my finances determine how I pursued my work. It was a challenge, and in a weird way, I really thrive off these types of challenges.
What was the first step?
I decided to spend one year researching, and I moved to Berlin, a city where I could enjoy low overhead, pay off some bills, and set myself up for what I knew would be a serious commitment. I went into this mad phase of tacking up images and research materials to the walls. It was very True Detective, except I didn’t have a board, I had a whole apartment of images and text and plans. Anyone who came in off the street would have thought I was out of my mind. But of course, even some people who knew me were naysayers. You know, people would say, “Oh, I know another guy who is also doing a project on water…” or “How can you possibly do a project on water, and with so many countries? It’s impossible.”
How many countries are in the project?
32. It is vast, but I told myself I didn’t need to make anyone else understand or believe that it was possible. I just needed to make sure that I understood and believed. Then, if I fail, I’ll know it was due to my own inability, not because of self-doubt or outside influences.
Not to get too esoteric, but for me, photography is deeply personal. It’s about an inner truth made up of teachings from my own life experiences, compounded with the responsibility to try and do the best I can, knowing that photography is not about the hunt for truth, it can only take glimmers or reflections of it. You will always be looking at one side of a rotating moon. You can never really attempt to encapsulate the whole truth of a situation. The perspective, your truth, is just that, yours. I recognize that I am going to be in these situations in Pakistan, Brazil, or in China that are difficult emotionally, and sometimes physically. But if the common denominator in all these situations is my willingness to hold myself to a standard, that it has to be excellence and not bullshit, then that self-awareness is what carries the project through. I understand the cost of failure. I’ve failed enough times, when I was younger, when I didn’t fully understand the cost of it, but those experiences are what make me see “Water” and say: It’s entirely possible to do it, and if I’m lucky, to also change people’s paradigms on the subject.
Getting Out Into The World And Asking Important Questions
Mustafah’s Photojournalistic Work On Water Scarcity
Rancho Mirage, California, USA, 2015.
Cholera education, Holy Trinity Primary School. Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2012.
Swimming in the Yangtze River. Chongqing, China, 2015.
Children journey to collect water. Sindh Province, Pakistan, 2013.
Uchiya Nallo, 8 months pregnant. Konso Region, Ethiopia, 2013.
Forest clearing for agriculture. Mato Grosso, Brazil, 2015.
Funeral pyre of Ram Bhagat. Ganges River, Allahabad, India, 2013.
What sets this project apart from other photographer’s work on the subject?
People often make assumptions about the project, they say things like, “Oh, it’s about water, so it must be about the water crisis,” or “It’s about energy and water, right?” or “Is it about recreation and water?” I explain that it’s all of those things and none of those things. It’s about something that has never before, in my opinion, existed. It’s a modern compendium on our greatest human challenge. There is nothing more pure than that. Just like I am here, sitting across the table from you here, drinking a glass of water—there is someone on the other side of the world, doing the same thing, and we will suffer the consequences equally if we don’t become caretakers of this resource. I mean, if I were to photograph a civil war or conflict areas, you might say, there are two sides to that conflict…but with water there is only one side. Without it, we will cease to exist. There are no other variables. There’s a truth in that simplicity of message that I find reassuring.
How do you choose what areas of these regions to document?
It’s about doing more: how to do more and give more to the subject, because it deserves more. Well, for example, if I’m going to do China, I’m going to do China with two organizations instead of one. I’m going to do a river trip, I’m going to map it out and take time to cover specific areas. I’m going to shoot, but also do interviews. I’m going to hit it hard. It is positively exhausting (laughs), but when I come home, and look at the images, it’s like, “Okay, I took two months to do China, imagine what I can do in 10 years!”
You’ve emphasized the importance of autonomy in the creation of this body of work. The project is self-initiated and self-propelled, so how do find funding for a project some might consider too lofty? Especially for someone who isn’t a specialist in water conservation…
I spent an entire year looking at who got every award in photography. I cataloged it. I looked at their text for grant applications. Not so that I could replicate it, but so I could see who I’m up against. What words were they using, how were they getting their projects funded, how did they turn out? I’ve called them to find out how they really felt about the projects they produced— because knowledge, in the creation of a project about water, is fundamental. It was a matter of discipline. I knew I would need to be able to explain to people, “No, I do not know how this dam functions, but I do know how people feel about how this dam functions.” I’m not an engineer, I don’t know the technical side of dam building, but I know the human side.
A Photographic Exploration Of Our Relationship With A Natural Resource In Crisis
Mustafah showcased his images from an ongoing study of the global water crisis for the first time in Stockholm during the 25th anniversary of World Water Week.
Some of these regions are more remote and inhospitable than others. How do you get such intimate access to these communities?
Of the 32 countries, Sierra Leone was first. I traveled the Ganges River. The experience of the place was such a powerful battery for the work I created. I need to feel the place I’m in, I need to be alone and work, just me and my backpack, just my film, my camera and maybe a book. I need to be in touch with the physicality of what I’m doing. I need to really be in it.
The reason the light looks the way it does in some of the Sierra Leone images is because I worked for it. I woke up at 4 am, I convinced a guy to take me on a boat down the river, from where he dropped me I trekked. I really sacrificed to get to that moment, and you can’t take that away from the image. If I don’t capture an image, the only person responsible is me. And in the next country, I do better.
Do you ever look to the work of your contemporaries for insight on how to move your own project forward?
When I started this project, I was researching everything. Water, water management, water theft, water connecting people for economic benefit—I was looking at ways to photograph the Panama and Suez canals. I was really ravenous for information. That research helped me to sort of liberate myself from a certain level of opinion. I realized I don’t need be invited to festivals (although they can be fun), there is this entire world out there that I should commit my time to. A world of people dealing with this exact topic that I’m interested in, that I can learn so much from. The last person I need to learn from is the person doing the exact same job as me.
If not your contemporaries, do you ever look to the careers of the historical greats, like Avedon and the like?
I can look at other photographer’s work and think about how it makes me feel. For example the work of Garry Winogrand, one of the photographers that I absolutely love, or Richard Avedon, who I also admire, and when I see their work, instead of thinking “I want to make work like theirs,” I think, “What if Avedon shot water, what would that look like, how would he imagine it?” The answers to these questions can only be found in my own imagination. Someone like Edward Burtynsky, who shot a lot of oil and power plants and made them look like spaceships, makes me wonder about the visual implications of presenting work like that, in large format. So the next time I’m in the field, and I’m shooting an aerial, maybe I’ll take a look at those questions in my notebook for enhanced perspective. A big “what if?” That is what making this project has become—a collection of what ifs, that I am tirelessly exploring.
“All I can do is make my best work with the most integrity possible—that is where the humanity lies, that’s the heart of it.”
How do you relate to the subject matter? Do you consider yourself a conservationist, or an activist?
Humanist is a good way to describe my interaction with the subject matter. The moment you take a picture, you still haven’t done anything but press a button. You haven’t done anything for that person on the other side of the lens or bettered their situation. It happens sometimes, that you can influence change through the images, like the images out of Vietnam did for U.S. attitudes toward the war. Helping people is not my job as a photographer, I think it’s my responsibility as a human being. But I can’t see or be responsible for everyone’s pain. All I can do is make my best work with the most integrity possible—that is where the humanity lies, that’s the heart of it.
With all the initial research behind you, have there been any surprises in the process of creating this body of work, any unexpected turns on the path to completion?
Migration and what is happening in the Mediterranean has added a layer to this already circuitous path. The idea of water as a physical barrier between these migrants and a better life really struck me. So much so that I have been toying with the idea of scrapping my planned trip to California to shoot fires to instead go to Calais and Kos. I consulted with some friends on the logistics, thought about whether I was ready to take on something like this. I weighed it against some pre-existing commitments and decided to wait. That’s one of the things that surprises me most about this project: I not only have to keep up with my existing research, but I also have to keep an eye toward current events and sociologic shifts worldwide.
Is this a lifetime’s work? Do you think in terms of legacy?
It’s about me finding my place in the world through the work, for sure. I’ve always wanted to contribute something worthwhile, and this could be it, but it could not be. Instead, it could be the stepping-stone to creating something better. I am committed to finding out. All those awards, name recognition, and books that some photographers strive for are important, sure. It’s definitely fulfilling to be recognized by your peers, but that lasts for a moment and then I have to go back and continue to do the work.
Thank you, Mustafah, for discussing your work with us in such detail. We’re excited to watch Water unfold. Find out more about all of Mustafah’s projects on his website.
Mustafah is one of the photographers in the VSCO Artist Initiative™ – this portrait was produced in collaboration with them. To see more from his exhibition in Stockholm, head to their journal post that captured the event.
Interview & Text: Alyse Archer-Coité
Photography: Daniel Müller / Robbie Lawrence