15 years and 32 countries: Mustafah Abdulaziz’s Water project presents an outstanding full-time commitment to documenting our relationship with water. The initial idea to embark on such a journey began in 2011 and has since developed into a monumental ongoing photography series that couldn’t be more necessary worldwide. Ideas surrounding water and our intimate affair we have with the natural resource are often underrepresented; water connects everything, it’s the source of life and the stem of all routes. Our planet is in jeopardy and Mustafah aims to tell the story of this crisis through powerful imagery. We were lucky enough to talk to him to find out more about this project and the impact it will have on a global level.
What inspired you to begin the Water project?
It was 2011, I’d moved to Berlin and I left my job as a photojournalist in New York. I was disillusioned with my work. It was imperative I put my energy and focus towards something worthwhile. I was less concerned with profit and more with independence and creative expression. Through the course of many, many months, I found that water linked the different themes that I was interested in: systems of control, the natural order, large-scale human behaviour and, most of all, the blend of the literal and the conceptual. The next year I began drafting up what would be the general outline for the 15-year work.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the world’s water? What exactly needs to be done?
This is a massive question and one I can’t answer. The challenges facing our planet are incredible and numerous. Energy, population growth, increasing political instability and mass migration of people, climate change and social issues challenge the order of Western society itself. Underpinning all of these, in facets both interpretive and embarrassingly obvious, is water. It is the stage for many of our dramas while also being attacked in itself. So to summarise, the state of the world’s water would require multiple essays and critiques, none of which I can provide here. I can say that water is inseparable from our existence, that if we were to truly have a mirror with which to hold up to ourselves, we would see that our relationship with the planet has put our resources in jeopardy and that we must focus on our responsibility to safely shepherd this planet. Not just for us, but for the generations to come.
How do you expect the audience to interpret your photographs? What should they learn?
There’s hope and then there’s reality. How I hope viewers receive the photographs is not always possible for me to gauge, but I can say that my intention in every stage of the work is to make sure it is not didactic. In the past, I find people typically respond with a desire to contextualise the photographs with something they know, or to see them in some type of proactive mindset, which is nice but is not my core interest. It’s the feeling that I’m focused on, because it is through feeling that we interact with water and it is through feeling that we remember powerful experiences and moments in our lives. If an individual walks away from my work and feels closer with their world and perhaps has feelings of empathy towards it that don’t benefit them directly, then I’ve done something that is at direct odds with the overwhelming stimulus of our self-concerned age.
On a personal level, what does water mean to you?
With the work Water, I’ve tried to stress the interpersonal perspective and the homogenous nature of the resource. This ties closely with my own personal experience with not just water but with nature: we are emotionally tied to our world and all share these spaces. Water brings into the forefront of our minds the immediate, the overwhelming and personal feelings of infinity and perpetuity. It’s something akin to real magic to me, the feelings I have when I’m swimming or plunging into the break. I feel awe, gratefulness and respect. These are feeling that really place a person in the true scale of the universe and reminds me that I am a part of something larger and yet, not the most important piece of it. In a time when much of our culture is focused inward towards the self, I believe communion with nature can invite powerful feelings of selflessness and therefore real and natural elation.
Where do you see the project heading and how do you think it will impact?
The project will evolve as it must. One of the key lessons I learned early on was that I could plan all I wanted but the moment something began, it would run its own course and I would either adapt or fail. I think the project directs my hand as much as my time and energy bring it to life. I’m now working in the logistics phase for 2018 and pretty excited about its potential. It’s going to require me to learn some entirely new skills and push my physical limits and I’m greatly looking forward to it all.