Carolyn Drake was born in California and earned her bachelor’s degree in Media/Culture and History from Brown University in 1994. Drake went on to study photography at the International Center of Photography and Ohio University, and worked as a multimedia producer in New York for many years before launching her career as a documentary photographer.
Drake seeks clarity by immersing in the periphery, and has focused on environmental and cultural issues in Central Asia since 2007. Her previous work includes Wild Pigeon, which explores the Uighur encounter with Chinese expansion in Xinjiang; Coal Town, an intimate view of a Soviet mining town in the Donetsk coal basin; and The Lubavitchers, about a community of Hasidic Jews searching for mosiach in Brooklyn.
Drake is the recipient of a 2006 Fulbright Fellowship to Ukraine, the Lange Taylor Documentary prize in 2008, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010. She has received recognition from numerous photo competitions, including World Press Photo, POYi, UNICEF, and Review Santa Fe. Drake has lectured frequently, and she recently exhibited her work from Central Asia at The Half King Gallery in New York, The Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, Wales, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. Drake currently lives in Istanbul.
“As others have before, I turn to the past to see what I am. I follow the river which offers truths that can’t be denied. Distraught by where we’re going, I look back, for lessons to be learned. Against the flow, I look. Maybe this is the same thing that brought us where we are.” —Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey
Medieval Islamic writings refer to the Amu Darya and Syr Darya in Central Asia as two of the four rivers of paradise. The water they yield has sustained human life for 40,000 years, providing pastures for nomadic herders, irrigation for farmers, and enabling the development of culture, trade, language, literature, and—in parallel—a succession of wars and imperial conquests over the centuries. When the Soviet government officially incorporated the region into its empire, it began transforming the rivers into a web of irrigation canals that brought cotton production to the area on a massive scale. Such large quantities of water were diverted that the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, began to disappear, leaving salt and dust storms in its place. When Moscow’s rule ended in 1991, five new Central Asian nations—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—emerged and were burdened with plunging economies, artificial borders, and a growing environmental crisis.
Despite the divisions that have formed since the Soviet Union collapsed, the two rivers that run through the countries of Central Asia still bind them inextricably. This project follows the rivers from beginning to end through five countries, crossing into the lives of people and layers of history that they intersect along the way.
The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers are bodies of water where the connection between the earth and human life is complex and immediately visible. Cotton harvested on toxic, pesticide-contaminated land is later burned in a ritual celebrating rebirth and spring. Farmers who practice an Islam that prizes adaptation and views jihad as an inner struggle create electricity from mountain streams. The Karakum Canal, which runs 1,400 kilometers through Turkmenistan, is the world’s longest canal and has turned barren desert into a lush landscape of fishing, farming, and beekeeping. Dust storms and illness have overtaken land that was once fertile, ancient towns are divided by international borders, and the absence of plumbing and electricity is not because of a lack of supply but a result of politics.
I am interested in the lives of people who live along these rivers and those who are most affected by the dramatic changes that governments and empires have imposed on the landscape. Seeing the ways that history has divided and weakened these people, I focus on what connects them, the rivers. In doing so, I aim to look at what came first—what initially enabled life to emerge along the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers—and explore the consequences of what has been done in the name of progress.
—Carolyn Drake, November 2011