Harboured Memories

A photographer builds a personal account of how climate change altered Lake Urmia

The remnants of a dilapidated dock lie next to Lake Urmia.
The remnants of a dilapidated dock lie next to Lake Urmia.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Solmaz Daryani TEXT BY Maya Palit
01 February, 2019

A GROUP OF CHILDREN AND ADULTS, perched on a sunlit boat in the water, stare back at the camera in an image in Solmaz Daryani’s project “The Eyes of Earth.” The photograph was taken 36 years ago at Sharafkhaneh port, East-Azerbaijan province—a region that used to be a bustling spot for visitors to Lake Urmia, a salt lake in northwest Iran. Daryani’s maternal family lived and worked in the area, and the photograph features her grandfather, who owned a motel, and her uncle, who was a sailor. Another image, taken by Daryani in 2015, shows young boys in the same region, but the landscape is unrecognisably different. Much of the lake pictured in the first image has dried up, leaving behind a dusty and barren shore. One boy balances precariously on a rusty boat, the very presence of which seems incongruous because of the missing water. The warmth of the first photograph, which looks like a cheerful family outing, is entirely absent from this stark image of isolation.

When Daryani contemplates what has happened to Lake Urmia, she arrives at the present after a detour through the past. She intersperses a few photographs from the 1970s, unearthed from old family albums, with recent photographs of the region. The contrast is a graphic reminder that the lake and its surroundings were once idyllic and beautiful, had flourishing ecological life, and that its slow dessication has affected several generations.

Urmia—formerly the second-largest salt lake in West Asia—shrank by nearly 80 percent over thirty years. Although recent rainfall has helped the lake revive a little, the drying up was the result of drought triggered by climate change. Illegal wells and construction have also taken their toll, according to Daryani: the Shahid Kalantari highway, for instance, involved drying up 85 percent of the boundary between the western and eastern sides of the lake. This has threatened the habitat of species that were found in the area, such as the brine shrimp and the egret. “The lake’s ducks, flamingos and pelicans have vanished, too,” Daryani added.

There has been an exodus of people from the region too. The population of villages surrounding the lake dwindled, and Daryani’s grandfather’s children left to work elsewhere. In Daryani’s recollections, her family’s weekly routine revolved around the lake. They used to gather at the bridge for dinner on one day a week, and spent Thursdays and Fridays swimming, rowing in swan paddle boats and helping her grandfather at his motel. Her grandfather lost his job after the lake began shrinking. Her poignant description of his recent life captures how vastly things have changed: “My grandfather’s motel, which was never empty of tourists in the past, now lies deserted and ruined. During the summer, my grandfather always fixes the windows broken by wind in the winter.”

The words “abandoned” and “deserted” feature often in Daryani’s project, referring to piers that lead onto the dried-up lake or dilapidated ships that today lie unused in the sand. But Daryani’s acknowledgement of this desolation is intertwined with memories of what the place used to be, of which there are still tangible remnants: “Three swan-shaped paddleboats still remain, a reminder of the time when the summer days were filled with children’s laughter and so many holidaymakers came to the inn that some of them had to sleep under the almond trees. … I can still remember those moments clearly, and hear the sound of the waves and the wind.” Daryani’s convincing invocation of these memories works as a plea to the viewer to contemplate how personal trajectories can be derailed by environmental crises.

Climate change is central to Daryani’s other work as well: she has explored the effect of water disputes with Afghanistan on Iran’s wetlands, as well as how the increasingly polluted Karun river impacts communities dependent on it. Daryani is compelled by how relationships between places and past events “shape human identity and provide memories that are a reservoir of pain and joy.” And her vivid memory of a childhood by the banks of Urmia explains why she chose to contemplate the lake’s destruction through a nostalgic, rather than a sociological, prism in “The Eyes of Earth”—which takes its title from a line in a Henry David Thoreau poem. “There is a Persian term which says: ‘What arises from the heart, of necessity, sits well with the heart,’” she said. “If, to the rest of the world, the drying of Lake Urmia is only the elimination of a blue spot on the maps of Iran and the earth, for me and the other people who have lived there, it is forgetting some part of my identity and memories.”

Solmaz Daryani is a self-taught Iranian photographer based between Tabriz in Iran, and
Newcastle in the United Kingdom. Her work explores the socioeconomic connections
between drought, climate change, migration, water crises and the environment in Iran.

Maya Palit is the books editor at The Caravan.