“It was underpinning every interaction”: New York photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz and his 15-year project on water.


An innovative project supported by the United Nations, Wateraid and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Mustafah Abdulaziz turns his lens to a theme that is universal to existing.

Ripples of glistening ocean surround three swimmers. A pregnant woman in green climbs down the side of a mountain with a water jug. A dry, barren desert encircles a bright green (and healthy) golf course, complete with man-made water features. 

Whether recreational, banal, or otherwise, Abdulaziz’s photographs from Water are as all-encompassing on the subject matter as you’d expect. They serve to examine our varied human interaction with water, whilst also asking us to consider the significance of each of these interactions. 

And it was this exploration of water which initially emerged whilst Abdulaziz was looking to make other types of photographs altogether.  

“I looked at different topics, everything from resource extraction to large-scale migration, to overpopulation. And I realised that there was an opportunity to talk about all of these if I looked at one thing: water.”

What follows is an exploration of not just how water spans across different cultures, continents and contexts, but an emphasis on the fact that it spans across all of these spaces. 

Water both frames all of the themes that emerge in Abdulaziz’s work, whilst also being the theme in question to consider. And Abdulaziz achieves this by not necessarily sticking to the common trope for the topic. When we think of water, for example, what first might come to mind is that we drink it. But in other spaces, water might symbolise ceremony. 

At a Sunday Service in Cape Town, South Africa, we see a man centered in the frame, bent down on his knees, with eyes that are gently closed. Water splashes across his face and clothes, and in the foreground, a row of churchgoers dressed in green can be seen watching him as they clasp their hands in hope and support.

[Left] Bathing area for the homeless due to drought restrictions closing down public restrooms. The Carpenter’s Shop, Cape Town, South Africa, 2018.

[Right] Construction of bridge over Ganges tributary. Bihar Province, India, 2013.

Also in Cape Town, we see the result of drought restrictions: men in public restrooms splashing water on their face and body, but this time they’re bathing themselves.

It’s a similar composition to the Sunday Service image: the eye gravitates first to one man in the foreground of the frame, and then widens out its gaze to the others in the background. 

Over the Ganges tributary in India, two men are also bathing, as another rinses his clothes. His reflection is vibrant and visible in the water below him.

And in Chongqing, China, a man steps into a river for a swim. The backdrop? A mass expanse of metropolitan city. The forefront? An even bigger expanse of water making up the Yangtze River. The water engulfs most of the frame, interrupted only by the silhouette of this man making his way in.

[Above] The Yangtze River. Chongqing, China, 2015.

As the examination of water is given this wider discussion, two things happen: we are invited to note the many scenarios which involve water in human interaction, and, we also note that water serves to connect each of these scenarios in question. Whether in Cape Town, the Bihar Province, or the Yangtze River; whether ceremony, bathing or washing, water underpins every one of those moments. 

[Above] Drought conditions, Cantareira Reservoir. São Paulo, Brazil, 2015.

Something similar happens with Abdulaziz’s photographs taken in the United States.

Water is being utilized on the Classic Club Golf Course in Palm Springs. As it is also being utilized on the other side of the world, by an Ethiopian woman, when she gathers water to make beer for the village men to celebrate her child’s birth. The two moments are connected. What’s more, in one example, water is managed in a way that contrasts so starkly to its dried up surroundings. And in the other, a great deal of risk is involved just to get the water needed to celebrate.

[Left] Classic Club Golf Course. Palm Desert, California, USA, 2015.

[Right] Uchiya Nallo, 8 months pregnant, gathering water to make the beer for the village men to celebrate her birth. Konso Region, Ethiopia, 2013.

Similarly, in Panama City, Florida, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, an abandoned boat lies idly on an expanse of pastel-colored water. Words on the boat read, “Happy Holidays”. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, a mass of young and curious schoolchildren gather in one classroom, heads peeking up, to learn about how contaminated water can lead to contracting Cholera.

[Left] Hurricane Michael aftermath, Christmas Day. Panama City, Florida, USA, 2018.

[Right] Cholera education. Holy Trinity Primary School, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2012.

What does not belong together, through the concept of water, in turn becomes synchronized. What might stereotypically feel foreign and distanced is photographed in a way that evokes beauty and calm. And it’s through this approach – the observation simply of how water features in every human interaction – that its wider discussion can be provoked: what our relationship with the natural world is across different cultures, and how we manage or mismanage our usage of water. And most significantly, just how fundamentally important a resource water is. 

[Above] Wattamolla. Australia, 2017.

New York-born Abdulaziz first embarked on his Water project in 2011, before which, he was working as the first contract photographer for The Wall Street Journal. Now based in Berlin, he began to travel the world and search for topics that he believed to be crucial to his narrative and that of the wider world. Water became that important motif. 

The feature above is courtesy of the photographer for the purpose of public education. For further information about the project, visit: www.mustafahabdulaziz.com.

By Lauren Grant — Mar 9, 2020
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice. Water by Mustafah Abdulaziz is an independent photographic project that is not connected to Mitte or its subsidiaries. The feature above is courtesy of the photographer for the purpose of public education. For further information about the project, visit: www.mustafahabdulaziz.com

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