CES on the Ground: An interview with Carolyn Drake, author of Two Rivers

We were lucky enough to snag an interview with Carolyn Drake, who created a beautiful photography book that looks at life along the two main rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, over her years of travel in the region. The New Yorker recently wrote an article on the book and a slideshow of pictures, seen here, and you can buy your own copy here – and trust us, after seeing her photos, you’ll want to!

Carolyn Drake is the recipient of numerous prizes and has displayed her work all over the US and the UK. She “is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright fellowship, the Lange Taylor Documentary Prize, a World Press Photo award, and was a finalist for the Santa Fe Prize. She has exhibited at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, Somerset House in London, and the New York Photo Festival, among other venues.”(Taken from her website)

Without further ado, we’ll let her tell our readers more about this project:

1) Do you mind quickly explaining for our readers why you chose to make this book, and what you hope to accomplish with it?   

I use photography as a tool for trying to understand what is happening in the world, what life is about. Going to Central Asia was part of this ongoing exploration. I had just spent a year living in Ukraine, and while learning about the place, I was also becoming more familiar with the visual codes that had been used over and over again (by me and others) to depict this place.

Plants line the current north shore of the north Aral sea. What was once the world's fourth largest lake shrunk 70% during the 20th century but began to grow again after construction of the Kokaral dam was completed in 2005. The surface area of the north sea, now separated from the south sea in Uzbekistan, is now 50% larger than it was at its lowest point.

Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Drake

A lot of the cliches that help us talk about the world are connected with geography. The decline of the Soviet Union, the ascent of China, the ongoing social and economic and military strife in Afghanistan, the threat of Iran. What happens when you turn your attention to a place that lies in-between all of these engrained stories and places? The narrative becomes less clear.The ambiguities of Central Asia exist everywhere, I think, but we tend to prefer the easily digestible (and politically charged) ways of understanding the world. Paying attention to Central Asia and these elusive rivers was a way for me to challenge my assumptions about the order of the world and rethink whats important in it. I hope that some people will appreciate and want to engage with the experiment through this book.

2) Please tell us a bit about your personal interest in rivers.  Do you have a history with water or is it a newly acquired fascination?

I was never too far from the ocean or a swimming pool when I was growing up, and as a teenager I spent several hours a day in the pool on a swim team. But I didnt have much experience with rivers until I got to Central Asia. This is one of the farthest places from the ocean on earth, so if youre looking for water, the rivers are where you have to direct your gaze

Pheasant hunters in Zhetisay

Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Drake

But its only partly because I am predisposed to water that the rivers became the object of this study. The river was the closest thing to a universal symbol that I could think of. It was a way of rooting the work in a seemingly fixed concept while studying a culture and place that was vast and complicated and foreign to me. More importantly, as I traveled through these countries I began to see the intricate ways these rivers influence the varied expressions of life I was seeing. Whether you’re talking cotton pickers in Uzbekistan or participating in a Navrus celebration in Turkmenistan or stooping over a box of heroin in a storage closet in Tajikistan or crunching along the salt-coated dried sea in Kazakhstan, nearly every situation can be linked to the rivers.

3) Your work often highlights people.  Can you describe your approach for gaining the trust ofthe people that allows you to capture such striking shots?

Villagers along a canal near the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Drake

Some of the images of people were framed in passing, very spontaneously, and without conversation. Others involved spending long periods of time with people. I use a small camera, and Im a rather quiet person. This helps limit the amount of attention I draw to myself. But I take a lot of pictures – sometimes hundreds or thousands of one scene or event – and that can be disruptive. Also, my language skills are limited, and I am not local, which makes it difficult to blend in. So what I end up with are pictures that feel close and distant at the same time.

4) Two Rivers features a textual guide written by Elif Batuman. How did you meet Ms. Batuman and why was she the right person to write the accompanying text for the book?

My first assignment for The New Yorker several years ago was a story Elif wrote about a chef in Istanbul. The guy was a culinary artist who drew inspiration from the wild ingredients of the Anatolian countryside. I loved the story and immediately looked her up. When I came across the book she had recently published, The Possessed, I was surprised to see that she had spent many years studying the literary/cultural landscapes of Russia and Turkey, that she had lived for a time in Uzbekistan, and that she had found a way to weave her experiences in these places, and in grad school in California, into a single book – not the typical geographical study. I liked her way of thinking, how she seemed to be probing for answers about the meaning of life somewhere between literature and the real world. And I was thrilled that while she had some of the same geographic interests I did, she had approached them in an unexpected way. I wondered what she might see in my pictures, and in the Two Rivers project. How might she read it?

Damla, village in middle of Karakum desert where people live off rain water collected in ponds in low area. There is less and less rain and snow, so when water is scarce they must move their animals, which is their livelihood, near the Amu Darya river. They raise camels and sheep and goats in the desert. They are from the Teke tribe and likely moved into the desert in retreat from Russian occupation.

Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Drake

The text for this book evolved over time. My designer, Syb Kuiper, initially had the idea of including short texts for each chapter in the book. I tried writing them myself, but found it difficult to make it cohesive – even within the chapters, the images are quite varied. So for each chapter I tried writing short phrases or sentences about each image, that could be read in sequence as a continuous paragraph. The idea was for them to flow one after the other, like lyrics, or like water in a river, mimicking the layout of the pictures in the book. But it still wasnt quite right. Thats when I asked Elif to get involved. She prepared an introduction and rewrote the texts, making herself the guide, and including many other characters – me, my translators, the people in the pictures – as secondary guides. That helped tie it all together.

5) I suspect an entirely separate book could be written on the joys, challenges and frustrations you encountered while creating this book. Could you share one or two of your most striking memories from your journey that don’t show up in Two Rivers?

A lot of it is revealed in Elif’s text, but I will list off some tidbits that didn’t make it in. I share these with a reminder that memories cannot always be trusted.

A lot of it is revealed in Elif’s text, but I will list off some tidbits that didn’t make it in. I share these with a reminder that memories cannot always be trusted.

Planes always arrive in the middle of the night.

I fall ill with food poisoning in the mountains in Turkmenistan. To avoid waking my sleepmates, I spend the night outside, napping between the stoop of the outhouse and the enclosure of the car. We continue on our journey the next morning.

Navrus in Kokand

Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Drake

I fall ill with food poisoning in the mountains in Kazakhstan. When I emerge from my room for breakfast two days later, I nearly faint. I lie in bed the rest of the day, grateful to be alive.

We’re driving home to Dushanbe. Ravshan, my translator, and his friend, our driver, are university students. They’re in the front seat. Im in the back with my boyfriend Andres. Im exhausted, a thunderstorm has descended on us, the road is flooding, the stereo is blasting, the window is cracked open. I place my face near the crack to feel the wind and rain.

It’s the last day of my last visit to Uzbekistan. I arrive at the Photo Club meeting in Tashkent, where I meet, for the first time, a group of talented photographers who gather once a week to discuss and show work. Its invigorating to share work within Central Asia, especially here.

Im in Namangan, Uzbekistan, with my translator who is from here. Its Friday and Ive asked if it might be possible to visit and photograph the mosque. My translator tells me to wait in the car. He’ll go ask. He comes back an hour later and says we’ve got an issue. We spend the rest of the day answering questions in the KGB office. We are both shaken.

A few days later Im in Fergana with a new translator who is from here. We get up early to walk down the street where cotton pickers gather in the morning to hop on the bus. There are lots of people around. I take one picture. We are taken to the police station, where we spend a couple hours answering questions.

We go to the hunter’s house for dinner to eat the duck they shot the night before. We try to discuss America and Islam. My Russian is terrible. 

6) How did the project change your thoughts on the region and how do you anticipate it impacting your future endeavors?

Before I started the project I was living in Ukraine, where I met several people who had left Uzbekistan for political reasons, one of whom became my translator and close friend. So I knew there were stories of repression there, and I read as much as I could about the region in the news, and in a few books, so I knew something about the border issues in the Fergana Valley, the environmental problems at the Aral Sea, religious restrictions. At the time, I thought a photographic investigation into a particular issue or problem could help different people understand and respect each other. Working on this project made me reconsider whether this is always possible. As I moved between these different countries, usually with a lot of effort and negotiation, I began to think more and more about political boundaries and other boundaries that people erect around themselves, and how these change over time. About the ways people build and destroy and reinvent the environments around them. While I was still interested in the particularities of place and faith and culture, I started thinking more broadly about cycles of life and power, and the ways they unfold.

The project taught me as much about the strengths and limits of photography as it did about Central Asia. Since I started working there, Ive thought a lot about the role photographs can play in educating, stimulating imaginations, or breeding complacency. There is a huge gap between what I gained and learned from making these photographs, and how they affect general viewers and the people in my pictures. Ive become more and more interested in studying this gap, and in finding ways as an artist/journalist to confront it.

7) Do you have one particular place in Central Asia that you feel more connected to than others, and why?

I tried to spread my time as evenly as possible between many different places. The movement helped preserve a feeling of discovery, even after several years of work. I tried to embrace that movement, and the connections between places, rather than one particular place. Some places that I returned to several times left me with a very different impression on each visit. My first trip to the village Doslik on the Amu Darya delta was during a drought, when there was no water in the wells. I visited a medical center, and several homes. People seemed desperate in a way I had never encountered before. But when I returned several years later, we sat and drank tea with a family of tree-growers, listened to Karakalpak folk songs, and visited an overgrown cemetery. The distress I remembered seemed to have subsided. Was this because people were being polite or guarded? Was my memory wrong? Had the water returned? Its hard to know in Uzbekistan.

8) Many of our readers are hoping to travel throughout Central Asia – can you offer any advice for first time travellers to the region?

Its hard to give advice to someone I don’t know since everyone has their own interests and expectations. Id say its definitely helpful to know Russian if you plan to travel in cities. But if you want to spend time in the countryside you will find few people who speak it well. Besides that, patience is a good quality to carry with you in Central Asia. Ask questions and talk to people but don’t expect everyone to think like you do or understand your point of view.

5 comments

  1. […] Carolyn Drake (cestandard) An interview with Carolyn Drake, author of Two Rivers […]

  2. […] Carolyn Drake (cestandard) An interview with Carolyn Drake, author of Two Rivers […]

  3. […] from: Central Eurasian Standard […]

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