On the basis of our approach to water – without which life would be impossible –, Mustafah Abdulaziz, winner of the 2019 Leica Oskar Barnack Award, explores our interaction with nature at elemental, hedonistic and religious levels. His deeply metaphorical series is both subtle and placative, and aims to reveal the dangers related to our dependency on the supply of this essential resource. 

What is it you want to say with your long-term project, Water? You’ve been pursuing this subject matter since 2012.

Water is a long-term photographic project dealing with how human beings interact with the natural world, and what this means for our civilization and our future. In this regard, it is my first endeavour of such magnitude.

How did you come up with the idea for your Water project?

I came up with the idea for Water during a phase of my life where I was suddenly having an incredible amount of new experiences. I had moved to Berlin without ever going there before, and suddenly I could vanish. I could photograph or not photograph. I could do whatever I wanted or nothing at all. In this semi-vacuum, this break from normality, I found great clarity concerning what interested me; and what captured my imagination most was the wish to make something expansive, something so insane that it would scare me. I returned to the same methods I used when I learned photography: losing myself in the expression and works of others in museums and galleries, bookshops and libraries.

How did you develop your approach to this broad subject matter?

I found that what I was searching for was a unifying force, a subject matter that absolutely transcended everything else and that, if photographed in the way I imagined, would essentially be a commentary on the most relevant issue of our century. The idea was to photograph water as both the actor and the stage. Our behaviour towards this one resource, critical to life on our planet, becomes a mirror for how we treat our environment, what we prioritize and what we idealize. It is present in our industries, our spiritual and cultural rituals, and, most importantly, it is a key player in our changing climate.

The facets of water you show metaphorically are manifold: water is a necessity in order to survive; but it is also used to water golf courses, and there is the religious dimension as well.

Some of my pictures are highly symbolic. Life came from the water and moved onto land. I like symbolism and use metaphors quite a lot. One recurring motif is the singular and trinity. There is often a trinity in my pictures: it’s a symbolism for making and re-making the world. For me, there has to be a layer on for all of the images: our coexistence with nature and the interaction with nature. It does exist, but we don’t focus on it today.

What do you intend to achieve with the Water series?

My passion is to comment on our behaviour. What I intend to achieve with the project is, at the end of the day, to fulfil my own desire. That does not mean the work stops there, but that the motivation for making it has been simplified down to the question of what I, a human being on this planet, wish to see, make and produce. After that question comes the relevancy of the work within the larger context of society, of education, or even the sphere of politics. However, it’s a question for a later time I imagine, because the work is incomplete and on-going. When that bridge is reached, then the question will need to be answered.

What would you like the viewers to become aware of?

I choose to do this work not only because of the great fulfilment it brings me, but because it is necessary. Our relationship with the planet just might be the most important story of our times. I want to provide people with the context, rather than to report. Photography is the vehicle.

How do you develop your visual language? In what way is your Water series different from other projects you have photographed?

The way I develop my visual language is to treat it as a conscious act of change. What works at one time, in one country, or for one aspect of water, might not work for another. In many ways, the development of myself and of the work reflect the core qualities of water itself, which are perpetual renewal and cyclic transformation.

It’s remarkable that you used analogue technology, shooting on film. Why?

The process of reduction is part of the game. Analogue photography is similar to a poker game. You don’t know what’s going to come, you don’t know where it will take you, but you have to constantly make decisions. You can have failures, you need to take risks, otherwise there is nothing to gain.

Please explain why you preferred colour over black and white, and natural light over flash.

While I prefer looking at black and white photography, my work is almost entirely in colour. There are however a few reasons for this choice: there is a personal preference towards the lighter tones of the colour spectrum, which comes directly from the influence of painting, where paint is instrumental to creating both the summation of a painting, but also the expression of the times and the artists themselves; it also plays a role in the melancholic and unaggressive effect I want the viewers to experience, as though this work taken in different countries across the world is all a part of some shared dream.

How would you like to move forward with this project?

I’m currently developing three new chapters relating to the next phase of the work, which will be shot this year. There will be a transition from immediate issues relating to water scarcity and how water is consumed, to the larger scale of water in the environment as it relates to climate change and natural disasters.

Mustafah Abdulaziz. Born in New York City in 1986, Abdulaziz began studying Journalism and Political Science, but did not complete his studies. As a photographer he is self-taught. He moved to Berlin in 2011 after working as the first contract photographer for The Wall Street Journal. His long-term project, Water, which he has been pursuing for more than eight years, has received support from the United Nations, WaterAid, WWF, VSCO and Google, and has been published in Der Spiegel, The New Yorker, Time and The Guardian. Find out more about his photography on his homepage, the Leica Oscar Barnack Award website and our LOBA magazine.